The only reminder Robert Atkins has of his coal days are a hardhat and a heart-shaped scar on his right hand, a souvenir from a voltage explosion in the mines.
Starting right out of high school with a shovel and sledgehammer, Atkins was pulling down a six-figure income by the time he was 23, working 70-hour weeks in the mines as an underground electrician. He didn’t imagine that in just four years he’d be laid off, with a newborn daughter to take care of. Much less that soon after, he’d be a crew chief overseeing solar panel installations.
“If you’d told me I’d be working in solar, I would’ve never believed you,” Atkins says. “I always thought I’d bounce from coal job to coal job until all the mines closed and I had to leave.”
Atkins is one of a small but growing number of West Virginians who’ve said goodbye to coal mining and who’ve staked their future on an industry still distinctly out of place in the state: solar power. West Virginia’s government makes no major investments in commercial solar companies, and offers no tax credits or rebates to residents who install solar panels on their homes. Indeed, state legislators have actively blocked efforts to expand the renewable energy industry. In West Virginia, where Donald Trump, promising to revive mining by slashing regulations, beat Hillary Clinton by more than 40 percentage points, coal remains king.
But Atkins and his colleagues in the nascent renewable energy industry have made a bet that the golden days of coal, hammered by both automation and the boom in natural gas, are gone. They now work for Solar Holler, a Shepherdstown-based venture firm that crowdfunds residential solar installations through an innovative community rebate program. Solar Holler invites supporters to install energy-efficient devices in their homes for free. Instead of keeping the rebates they’d receive for the energy saved, homeowners direct the proceeds toward solar panels and installations on other buildings. This recycling of funds has enabled nonprofits, homes, and businesses to go solar, some for the price of an LED light bulb.
Solar panel installation in Wayne, West Virginia, in 2016
It’s taken awhile to get Solar Holler off the ground. So far, crowdfunding has produced nearly 80 kilowatts of solar energy across West Virginia, enough to power only ten homes—but the company is rapidly expanding. In 2017, Solar Holler expects to install a minimum of 750 kilowatts, equal to nearly a sixth of the state’s currently installed capacity. The company’s model is changing the way people think about solar and has played a part in gradually expanding West Virginia’s solar infrastructure. The surge in demand following Solar Holler’s first major project, a 60-panel installation in Shepherdstown, overwhelmed the limited manpower of installers statewide. Since then, the number of solar companies in West Virginia has grown steadily, from 15 solar companies in 2014, to 26 in 2015.
The driving force behind Solar Holler is Dan Conant, a Jefferson County native with a master’s degree in energy policy from Johns Hopkins, who founded the company in 2013. Conant isn’t just bringing sustainable energy to West Virginia. He’s now helping bring jobs to out-of-work coal miners. Solar Holler had a watershed moment in 2015 when it decided to create the state’s first solar training program in partnership with the Coalfield Development Corporation, a community organization that helps low-income West Virginians in the state’s southern region find jobs and affordable housing.
Since 2012, Coalfield, led by executive director Brandon Dennison, has been offering full-time construction work and training in specialized fields to laid-off miners. The organization’s first foray into solar came as an addition to one of their construction projects, and demands for installations began to balloon soon after. It was around the time that Dennison realized he was onto something big that he got a call from Conant. They struck a deal. Solar Holler would find projects and take care of logistics through crowdfunding, and Coalfield would retrain miners and provide the installation crews.
Denison dubbed the new program ReWire Appalachia. Expanding job training into the solar energy industry, he says, was strictly a market decision. The ReWire crew led by Robert Atkins started with four people, and now boasts a dozen workers.
“Coal miners are smart people,” says Dennison. “It’s important for the country to understand: They make use of hi-tech, sophisticated equipment to do their jobs. They have incredible skill sets to build off of.”
In West Virginia, solar-energy advocates like Conant and Dennison have to build from the ground up. West Virginia has one of the smallest solar footprints in the entire Appalachian region. In neighboring coal states like Kentucky and Pennsylvania, corporations have invested heavily in solar energy; the commercial, industrial, and electric power sectors account for more than half the solar market in Pennsylvania, and more than 75 percent in Kentucky. By contrast, West Virginia’s solar market is driven by individual homeowners, with almost three-quarters of the state’s solar energy consumed at the household level. Dropping solar-panel prices help explain this trend, but so does West Virginia’s culture of self-sufficiency.
“The idea of getting off the grid is attractive to West Virginians,” says Dennison. “There’s a kind of libertarian streak.”
FOR DECADES, COAL has defined West Virginia, leaving the state’s many coal counties vulnerable to booms and busts. Lately, it’s been bust. Since 2008, coal production has dropped almost 56 percent, according to John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Thousands of coal jobs have disappeared across the state, disproportionately in West Virginia’s southern coalfields. The unemployment rate in Robert Atkins’s hometown of Williamson spiked up to 14.9 percent last year—more than double the state average and nearly three times as much as the national rate. It’s little wonder that Donald Trump, greeted by “Trump Digs Coal” signs while visiting the state, captured almost 70 percent of the West Virginian vote.
A roof-mounted commercial system in Huntington, West Virginia, was installed in September 2016.
The implosion of the mining industry has left West Virginia reeling. The state, which depends heavily on severance taxes from coal extraction, faces a projected $500 million budget deficit. Schools are confronting crippling budget cuts, the population is aging, drug abuse is on the rise, and many college-educated West Virginians are moving elsewhere for work, never to return. Since 1980, West Virginia, with a total population of just under two million, has lost a quarter million residents born in the state.
Miners blame the government, more specifically the Environmental Protection Agency. Virtually everyone in West Virginia does. Even Democrats. Pro-coal billboards proclaiming West Virginia to be in “Obama’s No Job Zone” and attacking “Obama’s Job-Killing EPA” riddled the state’s I-79 highway during election years. As Jeremy Richardson, an energy analyst who belongs to the third generation of a West Virginia coal mining family, succinctly puts it: In coal country, “the EPA might as well be a four-letter word.”
The backlash to the government’s “war on coal” was heightened by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, an environmental rule that placed stringent limits on emissions from gas- and coal-fired power plants, forcing some of the dirtiest to close down. West Virginia is one of two dozen states that sued the EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, and they may soon get a reprieve. In his first month in office, Trump, who has vowed to kill the Clean Power Plan, signed a measure rolling back a regulation that limited coal pollution in waterways. It was the first in what is expected to be a wave of environmental rollbacks.
But regulations played only a relatively minor role in coal’s collapse, which stems from a combination of factors, says Adele Morris, an energy analyst from the Brookings Institution. Low-cost natural gas shrank demand for coal in electricity generation, both in the United States and abroad. Production costs rose, and West Virginia lost market share to more productive mining states like Wyoming. Nor does Morris see coal bouncing back any time soon, even if Trump makes good on his plan to do away with the Clean Power Plan. The industry’s problems are driven not by regulations but by the market, says Morris.
“You can vilify the Obama administration and the Clean Power Plan all you want, but supply and demand will continue to rule,” she explains.
Solar Holler’s Conant readily admits that solar isn’t going to replace coal, but the fact that solar can even begin to succeed in West Virginia, where the industry faces so many obstacles, testifies to the tenacious appeal of renewable energy. Born and raised in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, Conant worked on community-scale solar programs in Virginia and Vermont before returning home to test his ideas in West Virginia.
Workers install solar panels at a farm outside of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in August 2016.
Not that he hasn’t encountered plenty of hurdles.
West Virginia is one of only nine states that have put restrictions on power purchase agreements. Such agreements allow third-party developers to install solar panels onto a consumer’s home, and then sell them the energy that they generate at below-market rates. In other states, power purchase agreements, championed by big companies like SolarCity, have been the driving force behind the solar industry’s growth by eliminating expensive up-front installation costs. Their restriction in West Virginia, along with a slow-to-adapt supply chain, have hamstrung the industry.
“It’s not easy for a new solar company to get started,” acknowledges Conant. “Lenders, suppliers, and even the local city inspectors aren’t used to it.”
West Virginia’s GOP-controlled legislature hasn’t helped. In 2015, soon after Republicans returned to power for the first time in 80 years, the legislature made West Virginia the first state in the country to entirely repeal a renewable energy standard, which had required major utilities to get at least a quarter of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.
Moreover, the state’s Public Service Commission has dithered on the future of net metering, which is one of the biggest perks consumers can get for going solar. Net metering enables homeowners connected to a public grid to sell any surplus energy generated back to utility companies. In 2015, utility company American Electric Power pushed a bill signed by former Governor Earl Ray Tomblin that capped net metering across the state and ordered the state’s Public Service Commission to study the costs of the practice on utility customers. Solar advocates say the bill leaves the door open to further regulatory crackdowns and puts solar providers in a tough spot, unsure if the benefits they’re promising to customers now will be available in the future.
“We’re killing ourselves with friendly fire,” says James Van Nostrand, law professor and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University. “Everything legislators have done in the last three years has been in the opposite direction of where the energy industry is going.”
The challenges facing solar companies could intensify under Trump. A 30 percent federal tax credit to help with installation costs, first adopted under George W. Bush, could be on the chopping block. With Republicans in charge of both Congress and the White House, a widespread rollback of federal and state incentives for solar might be on the table. Trump’s new EPA administrator, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has been a vociferous opponent of climate regulations and has worked to curtail the deployment of renewable energy sources in favor of oil and gas.
“The combination of a Trump presidency and GOP legislature could result in a wholesale dismantling of many of the solar incentives and policies at the federal level,” says a report put out by the equity research firm Roth Capital Partners.
But even in the Trump era, solar advocates in West Virginia still see a few silver linings. There’s been a slight but consistent shift in rhetoric from business leaders and politicians in the state. When Tomblin gave his State of the State address in 2016, he mentioned that it was unlikely that coal production would return to past highs, and called for a more diversified economy. His successor, newly elected Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, refuses to give up on coal, promising to reopen mines and get miners back to work. He also admits, however, that West Virginia’s dependence on coal is at the heart of its current problems.
It’s up to entrepreneurial efforts like Solar Holler to prove that solar and other renewable energies deserve a seat at the table in diversification talks.
“That’s where you demonstrate the potential for these solutions,” says Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If it succeeds, more and more of the political leadership will follow.”
In January 2016, the state’s second-largest utility company, Appalachian Power, announced plans to install 260 megawatts of utility solar, which will be available to consumers in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee by 2025—a colossal amount compared to the less than 6 megawatts currently installed statewide. Though most of the construction may not begin for close to another decade, when solar prices come down far enough to make mass installation affordable, solar advocates are encouraged. They maintain that residential expansion is key to solar industry growth.
“Utilities are not going to make solar take off alone,” says Van Nostrand. “You need organizations like Solar Holler to help people navigate this process.”
Conant and Dennison contend it’s no longer a matter of if solar energy takes off in West Virginia, but when. The state’s history and culture may be against them, as are the legislature and now the president, but the two remain steadfast in their resolve to train former miners and expand solar. The Mountain State’s experiment in solar energy may be a risky one, but some argue that it bodes well for the industry.
“If you can do it in a place like West Virginia,” says Richardson, “you can do it anywhere.”