Lawrence Brothers laser
Employees at Lawrence Brothers Inc. in Tazewell County, Virginia, use lasers to create steel battery trays for a range of industries. Laser technology has helped the business diversify beyond coal. Credit: Lawrence Brothers Inc. / Courtesy

Renewable energy jobs could well be on the rise in Southwest Virginia now that the region is on the receiving end of close to $500,000 sought by a couple of nonprofit go-getters.

Appalachian Voices announced Tuesday that its ambitious proposal to help four companies move beyond their coal-centric beginnings was green-lighted by the Virginia Growth and Opportunity (GO) Board in mid-March.

Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices paired with Vivek Shinde Patil of Ascent Virginia to apply for $486,366 in state matching grants to help local companies pivot to exporting advanced batteries and other components that fuel cars in Asia, light homes in California or store energy generated by wind farms in Europe. 

The venture they call the Energy Storage and Electrification Manufacturing Jobs Project could generate as many as 206 direct jobs and millions in investments.

Wells, who has dedicated his career to turning solar into an economic catalyst in Appalachia, was the force behind the creation of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia five years ago.

“Since the workgroup was established, we have had the goal to support manufacturing jobs connected to renewable energy sectors,” said Wells, his nonprofit’s regional director of community and economic development. “Thanks to broad support and engagement from stakeholders, we have identified the strategies outlined in this project as the best way to leverage our region’s assets and gain a share of the rapidly expanding electrification market.”

The project will focus on helping four family-owned businesses — Lawrence Brothers Inc., West River Conveyors & Machinery Co., Simmons Equipment Co., and AMR PEMCO Inc. — connect to renewable energy markets.

In January, the GO subcouncil covering the southwestern part of the state had approved the funding. That advanced it to a vote by the full 24-member board. GO was created in 2015 to create private-sector jobs in a state long reliant on the military and federal government for employment. 

David Graf, president and CEO of AMR PEMCO, also serves as a member of what’s known as the GO Virginia Region One Council. The money will help his Tazewell County business expand manufacturing and marketing opportunities in energy storage. 

“Our company has worked diligently over the past several years to diversify the markets we serve,” Graf said. “Through these endeavors, we hope to not only retain our current employees and improve their wages, but to also provide new jobs, all of which helps our shared community.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.