Can Solar Shine in Coal Country?
by Ronald Fel Jones
Two Social Enterprises Partner Up to Deliver Hope—and Jobs—in West Virginia
On a cold, drizzly morning in January, a crew of six young men and two supervisors showed up at 8 a.m. sharp, ready to learn how to install a rooftop solar array.
The previous October, the same group took a customized 10-day course from leading solar training organization Solar Energy International on the fundamentals of solar electricity, aka photovoltaics (PV). Now, three months later, these students would put their classroom knowledge to use and install a functioning PV system onto the roof of an apartment building.
After spending the morning previewing the process, trainer Sue Stark guided the men through the required steps, as she had done with hundreds of other aspiring solar installers many times before— locating the rafters, laying out the array, installing the flashed mounts, attaching power optimizers, laying in the solar panels, running the wiring. The result by 5 pm that day: a 5-kilowatt array of 18 SolarWorld PV panels with SolarEdge power electronics, secured to the roof with mounting made by Quick Mount PV, Stark’s employer.
“One panel every five minutes once we got rolling,” Stark reported. “Not bad for a crew that never installed solar before!” All in all, a typically satisfying day of PV installation training.
One aspect of this session, however, was anything but typical—where it took place and who was being trained. It happened in Wayne County, West Virginia, and the trainees were underemployed young men in the heart of Appalachian coal country. It was the first solar training Susan Stark had ever given in West Virginia. And the class provided by Solar Energy International the previous October—out of more than 1200 in-person trainings in states across the country over the organization’s 25-year history—was the first ever conducted in West Virginia.
Economically devastated by the collapse of the coal industry, West Virginia is hardly considered a solar-friendly state. A modest but growing solar market does exist in the state, to be sure, but it is centered almost exclusively in its more prosperous areas such as Charleston, the state capital, and the Eastern Panhandle near Baltimore and Washington, D.C. There is no solar market to speak of in southern West Virginia coal country.
Two pioneering West Virginia social enterprises are working diligently to change that reality. And their goal is more ambitious than creating the handful of jobs made possible by this inaugural solar training in Wayne County. They are committed to building a foundation for a thriving renewable energy industry in the state of West Virginia.
A Treasured Way of Life is Threatened
Coal mining is woven deeply into the fabric of a proud people with a rich cultural heritage. Appalachia, America’s first frontier, is a rugged region populated by hard-working, independent-minded, ask-no-favors people who produced the fuel that powered the 20th century. King Coal employed more than 800,000 people at its peak in the 1920s, and a quarter million as recently as 1979. Today the industry employs just 67,000 workers, fewer than at any time since coal’s ascendancy in the 19th century. The number of coal miners employed in West Virginia has fallen from 22,000 in 2011 to just 12,000 currently.
The decades-long decline in coal industry employment had been, until recently, a direct result of mining automation and the adoption of less labor-intensive extraction methods such as strip mining and mountaintop removal. After a modest reversal of the job loss trend in the first decade of this century, coal employment dropped again in 2012. One factor is new, more stringent environmental regulations, leading to the shutdown of some old mines. A reduction in demand for coal in both the U.S. and China, including metallurgical coal used to make steel, has further reduced U.S. coal production.
But the main reason for coal’s recent troubles is the boom in the production of natural gas, which is now cheaper than coal, as well as being more environmentally friendly to burn. In the last eight years, the percentage of U.S. electricity generated from coal has fallen from 50 percent to 32 percent, now exceeded for the first time by natural gas at 33 percent.
These forces have combined to reduce coal production and prices precipitously in the last five years. Prior to this latest downturn, coal industry revenues and profits fared much better than coal industry employment, thanks to cost savings from automation and continually rising demand. This is decidedly no longer the case. Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, declared bankruptcy in April 2016, a step already taken by more than a dozen smaller coal companies in recent years. The combined market value of the four largest American coal producers— Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy and Alpha Natural Resources—fell from $34 billion in 2011 to $150 million as of February 2016, an almost unfathomable loss in value of more than 99 percent.
Not surprisingly, the reality behind these stark statistics is radical, disruptive change in the Appalachian communities where coal had been the economic lifeblood for more than a century.
Battening Down the Hatches
“It’s a very scary time in the coalfields,” says Brandon Dennison. “Their world is collapsing around them.” Dennison is co-founder and CEO of Wayne County-based nonprofit Coalfield Development Corporation, one of the two West Virginia enterprises behind this effort. “We need to diversify the economy. It’s no longer a choice, so we’re not waiting. We’re doing it with our own hands.”
The National Solar Jobs Census released this January supports Dennison’s assertions. In 2015, the U.S. solar energy industry employed 209,000 people, putting to work more than three times as many Americans as the coal industry. Given the divergent fortunes of these two energy-producing industries, it seems practical to explore the possibility that building a renewable energy industry in West Virginia might be just the tonic the region so desperately needs. But not everybody agrees.
West Virginians generally fall into one of two camps regarding solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. There are those such as Dennison who believe that coal’s decline is irreversible, and thus the prudent course is to prepare for the inevitable transition and open up to all possibilities. This group views renewable energy as well-suited to coal country, and that with a new way of thinking and government support, West Virginia can remain an energy-producing state by turning to new, sustainable, clean renewable energy sources.
“For generations, the entire southern West Virginia economy has been dependent on coal. Because of coal’s rapid decline, West Virginia now has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and its lowest labor participation rate. More people die of drug overdoses in West Virginia than in any other state. Our natural landscape is decimated by mountain-top-removal mining. Because of out-migration, our beautiful historic buildings, the cultural anchors of our communities, are decaying. Hopelessness has settled over the landscape like the black blanket of dust that settles after a coal train passes.” Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development Corporation, from an interview after winning The J.M.K. Innovation Prize in 2015 . (tinyurl.com/jfjk3b4)
The other camp, which includes a majority of elected officials in the state, has adopted the position that renewable energy is inseparable from a “war on coal” waged by the Obama administration that must be opposed at every turn. In early 2016, West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, led the successful petition of the Supreme Court to halt implementation, pending judicial review, of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
In a move that many interpreted as an attempt to discourage the further development of renewable energy in the state, the West Virginia Legislature in 2014 canceled a $2000 tax credit for solar installations, leaving West Virginians with no state rebates or tax incentives for going solar. In 2015, West Virginia became the first state in the nation to completely repeal its Renewable Portfolio Standard, designed to increase the percentage of the state’s electricity from renewable sources.
The state’s net metering law, which allows solar consumers to sell their excess electricity back to the utilities, faces increasing pressure from lobbying groups opposed to the law. In February 2016, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a controversial anti-net-metering bill on technical grounds, citing vague language. But the governor issued a statement saying, “These errors can be easily fixed, and I urge the Legislature to return this critical piece of legislation to my desk for final review.” The future of net metering in West Virginia is uncertain, at best.
“The political climate for solar energy has been very difficult,” says Don Perdue, a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. “The coal industry has put up a number of obstacles, out of fear I suppose. They use renewable energy as a bogeyman.”
“Our people have given sweat, blood, tears and lives to help build and power America. Reimagining ourselves not as a coal state, but as an energy state—including solar and wind—is critical if we are going to continue powering America. All we need is imagination (and a little encouragement and support) as millennial West Virginians lead the way into the future.” Dan Conant, Founder of Solar Holler (solarholler.com), from a March 2016 editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Perdue represents Wayne County, home of Coalfield Development. “You’re not going to get elected in West Virginia if you come out and say coal is dying and we need to move on,” says Perdue. In 2014 West Virginians elected a Republican majority to the House of Delegates for the first time since 1930. Perdue, a Democrat who has served in the House since 1999, has decided to retire in January 2017 at the end of his current term.
Against this political backdrop, Coalfield Development is working with another organization, Solar Holler, to forge a new relationship to renewable energy in West Virginia. Despite active political opposition, they are finding a growing resonance in the communities they serve.
“We find a huge gap between what goes on in high politics and what people want on the ground,” says Dan Conant, founder of Solar Holler, a community-based solar initiative dedicated to bringing solar energy to nonprofits, churches, municipalities, and affordable housing organizations in West Virginia.
Should the history ever be written of how renewable energy helped Appalachia regain economic vitality, the telling of that story could well begin with the serendipitous meeting of two native West Virginians, Dan Conant and Brandon Dennison.
A Community Approach to Solar
31-year-old Dan Conant grew up in Jefferson County, near the colonial-era settlement of Shepherdstown on the Potomac River in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. While earning a master’s degree in energy policy from Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore, where he was active in political organizing, Conant helped start a series of successful community solar organizations. He moved to Vermont in 2011 and became the first employee at SunCommon, a residential solar installation business which grew to become that state’s largest by focusing on neighborhood- and community-based projects.
In 2013 Conant decided to take his community organizing skills, project financing expertise, and passion for solar energy back to his home town and state. He soon became a prominent solar advocate in West Virginia, promoting the statewide use of renewable energy. In a March 2016 editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Conant wrote: “We should be exporting renewable energy. We should be firing up shuttered mills to make solar racking and wind turbines. We should be fanning out to every hill and hollow to build a 21st century energy system.”
In his campaign to accomplish this ambitious goal, Conant believes that churches, libraries, and other nonprofit and civic organizations can play a central role. “They have the most to gain from solar electricity,” he says, because lowering electricity costs frees up precious funds to pursue their mission. In addition, a solar installation on a building frequented by members of the community sets and example and offers educational opportunities to the public. “If the local church is adopting solar,” goes this line of thinking, “then maybe renewable energy is not as bad for West Virginia as the politicians keep telling us it is.”
As Conant pursued his vision, he tackled the flip side of the coin: nonprofits and municipalities face even higher barriers to going solar in West Virginia than homeowners do. Nonprofits cannot take advantage of federal tax credits and government entities cannot borrow, In addition, commercial buildings do not receive the same level of reimbursement from West Virginia utilities through net metering as homeowners currently do.
In his dogged quest to find a viable path forward, Conant came across Maryland-based Mosaic Power. Founded in 2012, Mosaic Power pays willing homeowners to hook up their electric water heaters to Mosaic’s remote monitors, creating a smart grid. Mosaic turns the water heaters off and on for brief periods in response to electricity demand on the mid-Atlantic power grid. PJM, the grid operator, pays Mosaic for its help in regulating the flow of electricity to stabilize the power system. In turn, Mosaic pays homeowners $100 per year for use of the water heaters.
By partnering with Mosaic Power, Conant believed he could devise a creative way to pay for solar installations on nonprofit organization buildings. A church or library would invite its members and supporters to put their home water heaters on the Mosaic Power remote system—at no cost to them—and then contribute their $100 fee to fund a solar power system on the organization’s building. If enough people signed up, the nonprofit would get a solar system at no cost to the organization.
Convinced that his crowdfunding tweak of the Mosaic Power program could be the missing piece in his solar financing toolkit, Conant created Solar Holler in 2013.
Putting it to the Test
The historic Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church became the trial run for Conant’s innovation. The church had been trying to finance a solar system for several years, but kept running into the same obstacles Conant was bumping up against. After a series of meetings with Conant and a group from the congregation led by Than Hitt, a church member spearheading the solar drive, the decision was made to give this new funding idea a go.
Within three months, 78 church members had signed up for the program. The church contracted with Mountain View Solar, a licensed solar installer in nearby Berkeley Springs, and in August, 2014, a 60-panel, 16.2-kilowatt system went live. About 40 percent of the church’s electricity now comes from the solar panels.
Buoyed by the success of this pilot project, Conant set out on his next community-funded solar project in nearby Harpers Ferry. In February 2015, thanks to 50 local families who signed up for Solar Holler’s program with Mosaic Power, the BolivarHarpers Ferry Public Library had a 12-panel, 3-kilowatt system on its roof.
Word of these solar projects spread fast, and soon Solar Holler was receiving inquiries from nonprofits and civic organizations across the state. Conant set his sights on creating at least one communitysupported solar project in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties within five years. Now Conant had a new challenge: how to meet the impending demand for trained solar installers.
“I always knew that if we were going to succeed at creating a renewable energy industry in West Virginia, we would need to develop both a market demand and a labor force to meet that demand,” said Conant. “I now happily found myself facing the second part of that equation.”
What Conant did not yet know was that the solution to this need would come by way of the very same Presbyterian Church where his solar financing breakthrough took place.
A Team is Born
29-year-old Brandon Dennison grew up in Huntington, the state’s second largest city, on its western border with Ohio. After graduating from high school he moved across state to Shepherdstown where he received a B.A. in history from Shepherd University in 2009. Dennison then went to Indiana University and earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management in the university’s social entrepreneurship program. In 2011 he returned to Wayne County to become Associate Director for Economic Development for the County.
While there, Dennison joined a group of fellow citizens to found Coalfield Development Corporation (CDC) (www.coalfield-development.org), a nonprofit organization with the mission to build “quality homes, quality jobs, and quality lives” for low-income families in southern West Virginia. He worked both jobs for several years, and became CDC’s full-time executive director in 2016.
Back when Dennison attended Shepherd University, he also served for five years as youth director at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. Dennison and Conant never crossed paths in those years. “We were floating around each other’s orbit without knowing it,” said Dennison. “Dan wasn’t there when I was, and when he came back to Shepherdstown I had already headed back to Wayne County.”
Fortunately, Than Hitt, the church’s leader of the solar project, knew both men well. Hitt told Conant about Dennison and the rapidly growing nonprofit he headed up in Wayne County, insisting they get together to talk about their respective work and dreams.
When they finally met in Shepherdstown in June, 2014, Dennison told Conant about CDC’s work in educating, training and employing underemployed coal country youth; their dedication to preserving West Virginia’s cultural heritage; and their green building approach to creating affordable housing.
“I got excited about the potential as soon we started talking,” said Conant. “We realized we had similar ways and goals. Both of us had moved back to our hometowns for similar reasons—to help reverse the brain drain and build sustainable careers right here in West Virginia.”
Soon after their initial meeting, Conant made a trip to Wayne to visit Dennison and see Coalfield Development up close. After meeting the whole team and witnessing their innovative job training program firsthand, Conant was 100 percent sold on the prospective partnership.
Deacon Stone, a member of CDC’s management team, was especially taken with the unfolding plan to hook up with Solar Holler. “It was clear to me that we had a great marriage with Dan’s solar expertise,” said Stone, who would become CDC’s lead in working with Conant to train and manage the local crews in installing solar.
A Job Development Powerhouse
Coalfield Development’s signature effort is its Quality Jobs Initiative, a groundbreaking training and mentorship program launched in 2012. A licensed general contractor, CDC employs trainees full-time on a 30-month contract. Among other things, enrollees learn to construct affordable housing, deconstruct dilapidated housing, reclaim abandoned mine land, and build and sell furniture and crafts made from the recovered building materials.
Seventeen people have graduated from the program, and 27 are currently on payroll as trainees (19 men and eight women). CDC leadership staff consists of six men and three women, all full-time employees. Additionally, nine men and three women serve as CDC crew chiefs.
The heart of CDC’s initiative is its intensive “33- 6-3” methodology. Trainees are paid for working 33 hours a week, get six hours of free education at a local community technical college, and receive another three hours in life skills training that covers topics from personal and emotional health to problem solving and balancing a checkbook. Those who complete their contract receive an AA degree.
“The brilliance of the model is combining on-thejob paid training with education,” says Stone. “We call it ‘earn and learn.’ Selling youth on the value of education is as important as the education itself.”
In a region where only 14 percent of the population have post-high-school education, an AA degree bestows a distinct advantage in finding work. CDC has had a 100 percent success rate in placing their 17 alumni with local employers.
Coalfield Development is gaining a widespread reputation in West Virginia for its growing record of achievement. It has also caught the attention of state legislators, including Don Perdue, the West Virginia House of Delegates member serving Wayne County, who has known Dennison since his days working for the county. “There’s tremendous interest, even national interest, in their 33-6-3 program,” says Perdue. “We plan to pursue it with our Congressional delegation to see if we can dovetail it into existing federal retraining programs. Both Senators are already behind the effort.”
CDC is supported by “a hodgepodge of funding,” say Dennison. Approximately five percent comes from individual donations, 55 percent from grants—equally split between government and private foundations—and 40 percent from payment for their services. “Our fee-for-service income is steadily rising and we expect that to continue.” says Dennison. “The income from solar installation services will be part of that growth.”
Integrating the New Solar Training
Coalfield Development was already practicing green building methods and promoting energy efficiency when Dan Conant came into the picture, making solar a natural extension for CDC. They had even performed a one-off solar hot water installation in 2014.
Partly spurred by the enthusiasm for their new partnership with Solar Holler, CDC has decided to reorganize into five largely self-run enterprises, one of which will be devoted to the solar training program and installation business.
The solar effort was officially kicked off in June 2015 when Conant arranged a week-long training in Baltimore for CDC management and crew chiefs. The session was conducted by Grid Alternatives, a California-based nonprofit that provides solar systems and job training to under-served communities nationwide. In the customized training Conant and the Grid Alternatives staff prepared for the occasion, the CDC team learned how to adapt their well-honed training expertise and methods to the needs and demands of solar installation training.
After developing their in-house curriculum and setting up for a solar installation crew, CDC became the first licensed PV installer in southern West Virginia coal country.
The CDC team, directed by Conant and Stone, was now ready to schedule the two inaugural sessions for CDC trainees described at the beginning of this article: the October 2015 classroom training by Solar Energy International (SEI) and the January 2016 hands-on rooftop installation training led by Quick Mount PV’s Sue Stark.
Both Stark and the SEI trainer, Kelly Larson, were impressed with the young men they tutored. Stark was surprised how well trained they were before she got there, a testament both to the October classes by SEI and the comprehensive on-thejob construction training the men had received from Coalfield Development.
“They were the best-trained, safest crew for a first installation I’ve ever worked with,” said Stark. “They understood OSHA rules and regs, and they had all the necessary tools and equipment ready to go.”
SEI’s Larson echoed Stark’s assessment, noting that the CDC trainees were “tool-savvy, troubleshooting, handy young men. Their skills were much better than what I normally encounter with a fresh group of trainees.”
Larson found the crew to be similar to military veterans she had trained who were looking for a new career. “Some of them probably signed up thinking, yeah, maybe this will work out. I could see they were a bit skeptical about solar,” she said. “But by the third or fourth day they started perking up, getting excited. By the end of the class they were all really enthused about solar. Education did the trick.”
She was also moved by the open-heartedness of the trainees. “They would even invite me to dinner! I talk about my week there all the time,” Larson said. “It was eye-opening for me, a wonderful experience. I would jump at the chance to help out again any time they asked.”
In counterpoint to the prevailing mindset in state politics, the success of the Solar Holler-Coalfield Development venture strongly suggests that unemployed workers in coal country are indeed interested in jobs installing solar, and—small sample size notwithstanding—are well-suited to excel at the trade.
Federal Support Plays an Important Role
Can this inspiring if modest start translate into a growing solar PV installation industry in West Virginia, especially given the adverse political climate in state government?
Clearly, these committed young men and their colleagues believe the answer is yes. “The future is bright for solar, despite efforts to stop it from above,” says Brandon Dennison. “At the ground level, people of all different stripes are supportive of this work. That will win out over time. Genuine market demand driving renewable energy is stronger than the barriers the legislature is trying to put up.”
Dennison also points out that, while state backing may be lacking, support from the federal government is growing. The investment tax credit (ITC) currently provides a 30 percent tax credit for solar systems on residential and commercial properties. Long considered an indispensable cornerstone for the renewable energy industry, the ITC was granted a multi-year extension by Congress in December 2015.
A growing number of federal assistance programs to help Appalachia diversify its economy are also in place, some of which can be used to support the solar jobs training program at Coalfield Development.
For example, a multi-agency effort called POWER—Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization—is issuing $45 million in grants in 2016 to Appalachian communities that have been affected by job losses in coalrelated industries.
The Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency that is participating in the POWER initiative, offers an array of additional programs as well. “They provide entrepreneurial support, workforce development programs, broadband deployment, business clusters, things of that nature,” said Dennison.
The Department of Interior supplies funds to help communities reclaim abandoned mines and mountaintop removal sites for agriculture and, potentially, wind and solar farms. Delegate Perdue said that a plan to put solar arrays on 30 acres of landfill was recently in the works but was halted at the last minute when they were unable to acquire the land.
“We are working on all these fronts,” says Perdue. “If we show we’re on the spearpoint with renewable energy here in Wayne County, it augurs well for the economy. And solar is a natural outgrowth of the progressive way Coalfield Development has been working.”
Will State Government Join the Cause?
Of course, everybody working to promote solar and other forms of renewable energy in West Virginia would like to see the state be more supportive of their efforts.
In his March 2016 editorial in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Dan Conant wrote: “Our people have given sweat, blood, tears and lives to help build and power America. Reimagining ourselves not as a coal state, but as an energy state—including solar and wind—is critical if we are going to continue powering America. All we need is imagination (and a little encouragement and support) as millennial West Virginians lead the way into the future.”
Perhaps the inspired efforts by social enterprises like Solar Holler and Coalfield Development Corporation and their positive impact on distressed West Virginian lives and communities will help shift the political winds in the state.
“Sometimes you need a common enemy to overcome political differences,” says Deacon Stone. “If we can agree that the enemy is generational poverty, then I believe we can rally people to help create jobs and skills for a 21st century economy in West Virginia.”
It is human nature to hold on to and defend what we already have and know. And everybody involved in this effort agrees that Appalachian culture and tradition are worthy of preservation.
“We’re not ashamed of our heritage. We are very proud of our heritage. We’re just adapting it to something new,” says Brandon Dennison. “Solar and renewable energy is an emerging market. Our elected officials, as well as investors and entrepreneurs, would be smart to join us on the leading edge of this market.”
Ronald Fel Jones is a writer living in northern California. He recently retired from a career as a copywriter and communications consultant, including working with a wide variety of clients in the solar industry over the past 15 years. He can be reached at ron.jones@ strategicword.com