Former energy center director prospects for Appalachian opportunity
Michael Karmis said although he's retiring after four decades in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, he's not leaving the coalfields behind.
Mining engineers don’t retire — they just dig deeper.
In December, Virginia Tech’s Michael Karmis stepped away from the daily responsibilities of running the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER) that he has led since 1998. But he leaves his Randolph Hall office ready to use all the research, teaching, and networking he has done over the past four decades to help rural Virginia reverse economic decline from the falling fortunes of coal.
Karmis, who retired in January, came to Virginia Tech in 1978 as a young professor in the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering and during his career went on to author or co-author more than 180 scientific papers and direct more than 60 major projects valued at more than $60 million in research funding. He also served as department chair for 12 years and took leadership roles in national and international professional associations.
Karmis has mentored many mining industry and academic leaders, including Zach Agioutantis, chair of Mining Engineering at the University of Kentucky. Agioutantis did his graduate work with Karmis, and later the men collaborated on research projects.
“He's a very influential person,” Agioutantis said of Karmis. “He's done a lot for mining and for sustainable development in mining in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world. And he has left a legacy. His name is recognized around the world.”
Karmis was an early proponent of carbon sequestration and other sustainability and mine safety technologies, facilitating research on them through VCCER. Eventually the center became home to the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, dubbed ARIES. Established in 2011, ARIES used more than $11 million in industry funding to support independent academic research into the impacts of mining on Appalachian ecosystems.
Karmis said those projects have produced more than 100 peer-reviewed publications by dozens of researchers at several universities. Their findings help inform policymakers, industry leaders, and the public on sustainable energy development.
But as he steps away from the university, Karmis’ attention has turned from mitigating issues related to mining operations in Appalachia to helping the region recover financially from 30 years of declining coal production.
In 1990, coal employed more than 10,000 Virginians, according to the state Department of Energy. By 2020, fewer than 2,000 of those jobs remained. The loss of so many high-paying jobs has devastated some areas of the state. In some parts of Southwest Virginia, more than 30 percent of children live in poverty, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
“Southwest Virginia is in a difficult situation,” Karmis said. “And actually, all of central Appalachia is an economic and socially distressed region. It’s not easy to replace jobs lost that paid $80,000 a year.”
Bringing green energy jobs to the region will help some, he said, but right now renewables can’t replace the number of jobs coal once supported. The resulting economic depression has led to an outflow of working-age families, leading to further social, public health, and economic decline.
“So have we done enough to try to bring more jobs down there? I don't know if we have,” Karmis said.
In this video series, Michael Karmis reflects on changes in mining engineering throughout his 40-year career as a professor, researcher, and academic and industry leader. Courtesy of The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers.
Facing so much need in the region where he has spent much of his career, Karmis said he will continue to work on new solutions through the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority. Created by an act of the General Assembly in 2019, the authority is charged with promoting economic development in Southwest Virginia and producing jobs through innovation.
Karmis was appointed to the authority’s 11-member board in 2019 by former Gov. Ralph Northam and serves on it with longtime colleague Michael Quillen. The Gate City native is founder of Alpha Natural Resources in Bristol, a former rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, and a 1971 master’s graduate of the university’s Department of Civil Engineering.
Quillen said he believes Karmis’ background in energy research, as well as his wide-ranging network of regional, industry, academic, and political contacts will help the authority bring economic development back to Virginia’s coalfields.
“He travels down here better than any other representative expert we see,” Quillen said. “He's here all the time, and you can always get him on the phone, even if he's out of the country.”
And the region still has a lot to offer employers, Quillen said. The perception of coal miners as guys working with picks and shovels is woefully outdated. For some time, mining has been on the forefront of technology.
“It's very sophisticated, mechanized, and there’s so much computerized electronics,” Quillen said. “The talent is here, from electricians to mechanics to welders, and they have a tremendous skill set. We just have to figure out how to attract alternative jobs to the southwest region.”
Karmis said he sees some hope on the horizon, including a recent federal working group report that identified $38 billion in government funding that could be diverted to revitalization projects in distressed former energy communities, primarily in Appalachia.
And he said interest continues to grow for commercial projects in the region, including energy storage, harvesting rare earth and critical minerals from coal waste, mine reclamation, and renewable energy, such as solar and hydrogen production.
This focus on the future and transformation to meet new challenges is a repeating pattern in Karmis' career.
“As department head, he recognized the need to train students to meet the needs of a broad industry, not just coal,” said Kray Luxbacher, current department head of mining. “He accomplished this by developing strong relationships in the aggregates industry. Today, over 60 percent of Virginia Tech mining engineering graduates move into the aggregates sector upon graduation."
In fact, other mining engineering faculty are today hard at work on projects that go far beyond coal, and could play a role in coalfield revitalization and sustainable mining across the globe.
Associate Professor Nino Ripepi has overseen large projects to test the storage of carbon dioxide in unmineable coal seams and shale reservoirs in the central Appalachian basin, as well as a recent project that uses drones and other technologies to assess the geologic safety and design of stone mines.
The department’s Center for Advanced Separation Technologies recently received more than $1 million to study ways to harvest carbon from coal waste ponds for use in new, high-value products.
And, last year, a United Nations-affiliated group recognized a department course in sustainable mining taught by Associate Professor Emily Sarver and a handful of collaborators in the U.S., Columbia, and Chile, as a model of sustainability-focused education.
Karmis said he plans to stay around to help in whatever ways he can.
“I tell people I’m not retiring,” Karmis said. “I'm just stepping down from Virginia Tech to have a bit of extra time.”