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Is yellow the new black as solar power replaces coal in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields? A non-profit group called The Jobs Project is devoted to creating alternative energy jobs in Central Appalachia and is installing a set of solar panels on the roof of the Mountaineer Hotel in Williamson, West Virginia - assembled by unemployed and underemployed coal miners and contractors. Another 40- by 15-foot solar array is going up on a doctor's office in Williamson, an area long reliant on mining; maybe there is life beyond coal here, and into the green building arena. The Jobs Project thinks so, and they teamed up with a solar energy company - Mountain View Solar & Wind of Berkeley Springs - to develop a privately funded job-training program. Twelve trainees are (as of February 2011) earning $45 per hour for three days of work, while some local laborers are earning $10 per hour helping out. These efforts are part of a "jobs creation" approach to installing solar thermal and photovoltaic systems on the roofs of many local businesses and residential homes. Demand for solar energy has been growing in West Virginia, as evidenced by Mountain View Solar & Wind tripling in size. Meanwhile, Eric Mathis of The JOBS Project is developing innovative approaches to sustainable development as he works with a staff of two, along with the ongoing support of community stakeholders. Ninety-nine percent of electricity consumed in West Virginia comes from coal and 50 percent nationwide; renewable energy makes up a mere 13 percent of the total electricity consumed nationwide – but it’s growing. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)
West Virginia's Solar Powered Dilemma
By Marc Adams , June 2010, BBC World News America
Ask any West Virginian about coal and you will hear that it is not just a source of energy, it is a way of life. Some feel that way of life is being threatened by the introduction of solar power in the state.
Coal has been mined out of the rolling hills and mountains of West Virginia for more than a century, earning it the distinguished reputation as the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi.
The black mineral has been the foundation of West Virginia's economy and ensuring the stability of most other industries in the state.
But there is a hint of change. Spurred by the shock of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a reinvigorated national energy debate and all against a backdrop of a continuing recession. People in small towns across the state have started to talk about alternatives.
Mike McKechnie and his colleagues at Mountain View Solar and Wind hope to provide those alternatives by taking their solar installations from the company's base in West Virginia's panhandle into the heart of the state's coal country.
"Fossil fuel is a finite source. It will eventually run out.
"That won't," said McKechnie as he pointed up toward the sun.
"At some point the transition will have to be made. Making it now is a good idea, especially in our state."
The energy coming from McKechnie's panels is just a drop in the bucket compared to the dominance of coal.
Still, McKechnie said business is growing. His company is already carving small inroads into the coal minded community of Williamson, a small town on the state's southern border with Kentucky.
He is under no illusion that it will be a smooth road.
"It'll be a little tougher fit there because it'll be more of 'You're taking my livelihood away' when in actuality it will be the same model. It will be an enhancement of an already existing energy business."
The energy business in Williamson is obvious. Day and night, trains cut through the heart of the small cluster of buildings in this West Virginia town, most hauling endless tons of coal from nearby mines.
Right on Williamson's main street is the historic Mountaineer Hotel where owners Edna Thompson and Mark Mitchell have decided to become one of the first businesses in town to adopt solar technology.
Their panels are scheduled to be installed in late July.
"We thought it would be a great idea.
"I mean it's gonna pay for itself in a few years and then it'll be making money for the hotel, energy for the hotel," Ms Thompson told the BBC. "Why not?"
While it might make sense for their bottom line, Ms Thompson still has some anxieties about how it will be received. After all, most of her guests and friends in the community come from the mining industry.
"Sometimes you don't talk about it because you think you're gonna get a negative reaction 'cause you don't want your friends to think negatively about you or your business. So it's hard. It's very hard."
Fears that renewable energy generation could jeopardise jobs in coal have created friction in the community and the greater region of southern West Virginia.
Many just do not see it as a viable option. They are concerned that it could drive coal jobs out without pulling all of the nearly 50,000 people that currently work in West Virginia's coal mines in.
And that is to say nothing of the thousands more who work indirectly with coal.
'A way of life'
The concern for jobs is shared by many at this year's West Virginia Coal Festival in Madison, West Virginia.
"Yes we'd like to have cleaner energy," festival attendant John Harden said.
"Yes we'd like to get away from dirty fuels. We'd like to have healthier jobs.
"But we also need jobs for our people. This area, without coal, is starvation."
Complete with sash and crown, Miss West Virginia Coal Festival beams with pride as she recounts licking her father's coal boots as a young girl after he returned home from working in the mine.
"This is our way of life," Ariana Bailey said. "If they took away coal, we would have nothing."
And yet, back in Williamson, even the mayor is interested in going solar.
"I see it as a way of diversifying our economy through increasing job opportunities in the technology involved in installing the things and really you're preserving our way of life by strengthening our natural resources," Mayor Darrin McCormick said.
And if it were up to Eric Mathis of The Jobs Project - a group partnering with Mountain View Solar and Wind to bring solar power to Williamson - everyone in the town would be on board.
"It's not just me coming in with ideas," Mathis said. "There's a lot of switches going off in people's heads showing me they've been thinking about it before I knocked on the door."
He tries to reassure people that there can be a future of both solar and coal for now.
"I'm not here to take jobs. I'm here to bring jobs. I'm here to actually bring development."
But Roger Horton, director of Citizens for Coal, said that even though discussions are happening around renewable energies even within the coal industry, the solution has not come yet.
"This magic bullet has to do a number of things. It has to provide the energy reliably, safely, affordably, and employ people because without the employment, there is no need to have that power source.
"You have to have employment where people can provide for their families."
Mike McKechnie of Mountain View Solar admits that coal will be around for many years into the future.
Meanwhile, tensions in Williamson will continue.
But with the gulf oil spill and the prospect of new climate legislation being considered in congress, Mike is hoping to gain a better foothold in small mining towns throughout the state of West Virginia.
About The Jobs Project
The JOBS Project serves the dedicated communities of Central Appalachia—the families who’ve provided energy for generations—by increasing opportunities for local ownership, employment, and education in renewable energy. It invites citizens and local governments to explore the benefits of renewable energy development in communities throughout the region.
After more than 150 years of coal mining, a new energy future is on the rise with potential for job creation and tax benefits for local and state economies. As the renewable energy industry grows, residents of coal producing states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio deserve to benefit from the natural resources development that will flourish in the region.
The JOBS Project promotes renewable energy as a way to create long-term, good paying jobs. The organization aims to make good use of federal and state incentives by offering rural landowners the chance to participate in the development of renewable energy projects.
The JOBS Project began siting for locally-owned wind development in Central Appalachia in 2009. Preliminary siting for wind development is based on wind speed data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), weather stations throughout the region, the layout of the existing power grid, and willingness from the community to support local energy development. In 2010, a group of landowners and local authorities in a West Virginia community formed a limited liability company to study the wind resource on their land. The Angel Winds Energy Association, LLC will continue to pursue commercial scale wind development.
Biopower: Pyrolysis and CHP Biopower is electricity derived from various types of organic material. These materials are usually logging residues and waste wood from local mills and timbering outfits. However, The JOBS Project is also interested in the creation of dedicated bio-energy croplands for prolonged feedstock availability. The JOBS Project is exploring opportunities to use this woody biomass for pyrolysis and combined heat and power (CHP) facilities. Pyrolysis is a method of producing marketable electricity through the thermal decomposition of a feedstock. Processing woody biomass in this way creates solid, liquid, and gaseous co-products. The solid bio-char is used as a soil amendment with carbon sequestration properties suitable for post-mining land reclamation. The liquid bio-oil serves as fuel to power pyrolysis facilities. Bio-gas is processed and used to generate electricity for the power grid.
Combined heat and power (CHP) enables lumber yards and saw mills to manage wood waste and become self-sufficient energy producers. Wood waste is fired on-site to create steam and electricity for the drying and processing of lumber.
Solar: Sustainable Communities
Solar photovoltaic (PV) and hot water (thermal) technology helps individuals become more energy independent, and is becoming increasingly profitable. The Jobs Project works with local development authorities and business owners in its home town of Williamson, West Virginia to create a replicable, sustainable model for solar energy. Its aim is to research, design, and build a large rooftop solar farm on downtown Williamson rooftops. TJP collaborates with W. Va-based Mountain View Builders to train local electricians to assess rooftop sites, finance solar panels, and connect to the electrical grid.
Distributed Generation Conventionally, power plants have been large, centralized units. Distributed generation facilities are dispersed, providing enough electricity to meet the local energy demand while also producing a small surplus. Additionally, the promotion of distributed energy generated from wind, solar, and biomass energy enables power companies to more efficiently manage peak power periods.
Rural communities are challenged by their low population density, less advanced technology, lower innovative capacity, and limited activity base. The ability to stimulate innovation requires that the rural infrastructure includes roads, waterways, power grids, and organizational structures that are tied to a central nucleus, thus providing an incubator for new ideas that draws on collective resources to adapt to change. Collaborations between formal organizations (nonprofit organizations, RE companies) and informal groups (energy generation employees, community members) will combine knowledge to guide development in the renewable energy sector.