Can Solar Shine in Coal Country?


In a state where the political climate is dominated by a belief that there is a “war on coal,” the prospects for solar energy may seem dim. In the face of this political backdrop, a surprising story is unfolding on the ground. 

Though still in its infancy, a movement is afoot in West Virginia to adopt renewable energy, not in opposition to coal, but as a sensible augmentation to help the state sustain its proud tradition of powering America. This article, written by Ronald Fel Jones, spotlights two social enterprises leading the way in this grass-roots effort, Solar Holler and Coalfield Development Corporation.

Led by two native West Virginians, Dan Conant and Brandon Dennison, these innovative organizations are are making it possible for under-employed young men and women to gain technical expertise, earn AA college degrees, and acquire the life skills necessary to combat generational poverty and deeply ingrained hopelessness caused by the collapse of the coal industry.

The article is based on interviews with the three prime movers of this joint enterprise; three young coal-family men who have benefited from these efforts; an elected member of the West Virginia House of Delegates; two solar trainers who worked with both entities; and other stakeholders.

Their compelling story offers hope and encouragement for the citizens of West Virginia, and provides lessons for other coal-producing states on how to help workers in distressed communities gain new skills for new jobs.

Not only does their on-the-ground success suggest that renewable energy is “not as bad for West Virginia as the politicians keep telling us it is,” it demonstrates why West Virginians are well-suited to succeed in creating and sustaining a viable renewable energy industry in Appalachian coal country.

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