A Sustainable Solution: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In West Virginia, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) is taking a local approach to boost renewables. The mostly women-led environmental group this year celebrates its 30th anniversary of working in the Appalachian region, where coal is a major contributor to the economy. Its staff may be small, numbering around nine, but they work on environmental and social justice campaigns that range from protecting water to organizing around fracking and oil and gas pipeline infrastructure to working for state-level campaign finance reform. They are also promoting cleaner energy in the area, including pushing for and defending energy efficiency legislation, lobbying and working on local renewable energy projects.

Vivian Stockman / via Facebook

For one pilot project, OVEC is trying to equip a sliding-scale-fee health clinic, part of a consortium in the state, with solar power. The clinic serves a rural, impoverished, post-coal area. The hope is that the money the clinic saves on energy costs can then be spent on better patient care. Solar power can also come in handy if the clinic loses power, which Natalie Thompson, OVEC’s executive director, says has happened before due to severe weather events, some possibly related to climate change. If successful, she hopes the project can be used as a model for other rural clinics across the country facing similar challenges.

One of their overall strategies, Thompson says, is to partner with local nonprofits to promote renewables, since most of these West Virginian organizations are relatively small and have limited financial resources. For instance, they have joined with the groups WV SUN and OH SUN to form a local solar co-op; educate residents on the benefits of solar energy; and help them organize, bid out and set up group solar installations.

A big challenge they face, though, is changing attitudes. “Fossil fuel extraction is such a huge, huge basis for our economy in West Virginia so it makes it difficult,” says Thompson, who grew up in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. “It’s just a complete mindset that needs to be changed because so many people depend on these jobs with little regard to the effect on the environment simply because what’s in front of them is feeding their families. And that’s completely understandable; it’s just [about] finding a way to begin to transition, economically speaking.”

While national work and large-scale projects are needed to push the needle on renewable energy, grassroots organizing and the small-scale action being done by groups like OVEC can be one way to start changing attitudes and building a broad base of support.

“You’ll always get more electricity out of a bigger project and probably more jobs. But if you’re trying to move the acceptance of renewables,” says Kate Gordon, a senior advisor at the Paulson Institute, “not as a niche market but a core part of our energy sector, if you’re trying to actually transition to a low-carbon energy future, you got to do the small-scale stuff too because it’s really important and it also is buy-in. It dramatically expands your audience and your set of advocates.”

This piece is an excerpt from a feature which appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to get a copy and become a member of the Ms. community!

This post is part of a series of Ms. reports on the blog and in print that look at the organizing models of some of the women-led groups helping to build a sustainable grassroots movement to boost renewables and combat climate changes. This effort has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. 


Juhie Bhatia is a journalist focused on gender and health issues. Formerly the managing editor of Women’s eNews, she’s also written for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Nature Medicine and Bust magazine, among others.