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This miner’s son went solar. Can his coal-mining home state see the light?

Scott Buckley grew up in West Virginia thanks to choices his family made generations before him.

“My family moved to find employment,” he told Newsweek. “And that employment was in the mines in West Virginia.”

Buckley’s grandfather, William Ernest Turley, started work in the mines when he was still a boy. Coal was not kind to Buckley’s grandfather, however. A mine cave-in left him with a badly injured back, and he eventually succumbed to black lung disease, Buckley said, as many thousands of Appalachian miners have.

Buckley’s father, Butch Buckley, also went into mining, starting a sand and gravel mine along the Ohio River in Mason County, West Virginia. Buckley recalled playing on mine equipment and sand piles there while growing up. “I had the world’s best sand box,” he said.

Mining provided jobs for generations of his family, but Buckley saw firsthand the industry’s real costs. He remembered as a boy seeing ruined streams run bright orange from coal pollution, and his own family’s history showed the devastating health toll mining could take.

Buckley also pursued a career in energy, though of a different kind. He’s president of Green Lantern Solar, a Vermont-based company that turns sites like old landfills and quarries into solar producers. Now Buckley is bringing his family’s mining and energy connections full circle by building a solar farm on his father’s old mine. He’s continuing West Virginia’s energy tradition, only this time with a fuel source from above, not below.

“Let’s continue that trend and have it come from renewable energy that helps support people’s health,” Buckley said. “And let’s give people good, high-paying jobs and give them hope for another option to support their families.”

He knows it won’t be easy. Buckley’s project provides a microcosm of the real-world challenges to a clean energy transition. Federal policy now encourages a shift to renewable energy, but many energy decisions come at the state level. And no state presents a bigger energy switch than West Virginia.

King Coal’s Rule

Coal mining has been synonymous with West Virginia for more than a century, but mining employment has been in decline for decades, chiefly due to mechanization and competition from other fuels, such as natural gas. That trend accelerated in the past decade as electric utilities around the country retired many of their old coal-burners. In 2011 about 23,000 people worked in West Virginia coal mines. By 2021, that number had dwindled to fewer than 12,000, according to state data.

Despite the job losses, coal remains economically important and politically powerful in the state. Many rural counties rely on coal property and excise taxes for revenue. West Virginia is still the country’s second-biggest coal producer, and it is the country’s biggest coal user: More than 80 percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal, by far the highest rate in the nation. (The national average is just under 20 percent.)

In 2021, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a mine company owner whose family fortune comes largely from coal, appointed a longtime coal lobbyist to the state’s three-person commission regulating state utilities. That same year, state regulators voted to allow expensive upgrades for some old coal-burning power plants, passing much of the cost on to ratepayers. Another such decision on keeping a costly coal power plant in operation is pending before the same panel.

As coal power gets pricier, bills get higher for ratepayers in one of the country’s poorest places. West Virginia ranks next to last in the country in per-capita income, and many of its residents now face average monthly electric bills above the national average, according to the Energy Information Administration.

A popular coal industry slogan in West Virginia is that “coal keeps the lights on,” but lately it seems to be the other way around. Citizens paying higher bills for light and heat are keeping coal in business.

Energy transition researcher Sean O’Leary with the regional think tank Ohio River Valley Institute said the fossil fuel lobby is fighting renewables around central Appalachia’s coal-mining region. In Ohio, for example, he said industry worked to pass legislation that lets local referenda decide the fate of solar and wind developments, a hurdle that gas and coal projects don’t face.

“Meanwhile, they’ve worked assiduously to make the issue a culture war battlefield with an accompanying focus on identity and ideology rather than the material benefits and drawbacks of development,” O’Leary told Newsweek.

Wind power has made some inroads in West Virginia, with more than 300 turbines in place. But in 2015, West Virginia was the first state in the nation to repeal its renewable energy standard, which would have required utilities to get 25 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Today West Virginia sits near the bottom of states when ranked by solar installation, with just 33 megawatts of installed solar power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Neighboring Virginia, by comparison, boasts nearly 4,400 solar megawatts.

Mine the Sun

Despite those challenges, another West Virginia native in the solar industry said his home state is starting to see the light. Dan Conant is founder and CEO of Solar Holler, a company in its 10th year installing rooftop and backyard solar systems for homes, businesses, schools and churches.

Solar Holler’s name and marketing draw on Appalachian culture and West Virginia’s energy legacy. “Mine the sun” is the company slogan, and “holler” is a regional term for a mountain valley settlement.

“The name reflects that it’s a way that we will revitalize the place we love,” Conant told Newsweek.

For years the company has been laying the tough groundwork for solar, such as building training programs for people who want to work in the industry. A partnership with the electrical workers union, the IBEW, and an area nonprofit called Coalfield Development helps people build applicable skills and ensures a qualified solar workforce.

Financing has been a big challenge, Conant said, with little banking or venture capital to support solar in the state. “We’re a poor state, we don’t really have that kind of startup infrastructure or financing,” he said. To counter that, his company established the state’s first solar loan program in 2016, and this year launched a solar leasing program for residential owners.

With financial systems and workforce training taking shape, Conant said, the state is better poised to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden‘s legislative achievement on climate change. Many parts of that law are tailor-made for a place like West Virginia.

The IRA has specific incentives intended to direct clean energy investment into places that suffered losses from closed coal mines or retired coal-fired power plants. For example, an Advanced Energy Project Credit sets aside at least $4 billion for projects in these energy communities, and an Energy Community Tax Credit Bonus adds up to 10 percent to the tax benefit for project developers who invest in qualifying communities.

“We’re on the cusp of some really cool stuff now,” Conant said.

Indeed, the year since the IRA’s passage saw a flurry of big-ticket clean energy announcements in coal country. Last September, two companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway announced a $500 million project to convert an old aluminum mill in Jackson County, West Virginia, into a solar-powered metals facility. Just across the state line in eastern Kentucky, renewable energy company Savion plans a 200-megawatt solar facility atop an old coal strip mine.

End of the Tunnel

Scott Buckley cheered on those clean energy developments, but he’s frustrated that West Virginia leaders don’t make more of the opportunities. As he sees it, the power infrastructure at idled mines and old power plants are ready nodes of connection for renewable energy, bypassing the need for costly and time-consuming construction of new transmission lines, a major barrier for solar projects.

National policies and markets are aligning around renewables, but the state’s cultural connection to coal is hard to kick, he said, and state officials seem intent on propping up old and costly coal plants.

“I don’t want West Virginia to be on the losing side of history,” Buckley said.

At a planned 30 megawatts, the solar facility on his family’s property would nearly equal the state’s current solar capacity, but it will take time. An interconnection study required to join the regional electric grid, PJM, will likely take years.

Buckley’s father won’t get to see the finished project on his old mine. Butch Buckley died in 2020 at 80 years old. Scott Buckley said he thinks of his father and grandfather often as the work continues.

“He didn’t have choices,” Buckley said of his coal-mining grandfather, whose memory provides him with an apt metaphor—a miner emerging from a shaft, blinking into a bright new day.

“If I can use a mining example, there’s sunshine at the end of the tunnel.”

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