Friday, November 17, 2023

Selling solar in coal country begins with local trust and an understanding of the history of those communities

Overcoming solar opposition begins with understanding
coal's history. (Photo by Gabriel Fibz, Unsplash)
Selling solar in coal country might sound like a tall order; however, solar advocates in southwestern Virginia have built a cooperative system of local support for solar. "In 2016, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, colleges, local governments, and citizens launched the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, which collaborates with Secure Solar Futures," reports Hannah Wilson-Black for Grist. "It includes experts in every aspect of the green transition, from community organizers who tell neighbors about the benefits of solar to legal experts who propose legislation."

The group's plan began with an understanding of the history and outlook of coal communities and why they might not welcome solar. Emma Kelly, who grew up in eastern Kentucky and now leads the Solar Workgroup's community outreach, told Wilson-Black: "I’m from the coalfields. And you have to understand. Coal mining is not just a job. The coal industry is not just an employer. It’s not like Walmart. [Coal companies] built towns, they built schools, they built churches, they made their own money. You cannot really overestimate the amount of domination they had over these social and economic systems.”

"Because residents of southwest Virginia may see solar as helping accelerate the loss of coal jobs, she and Matt McFadden from Secure Solar Futures consider their being locals an important component of building confidence in, and support for, the technology," Wilson-Black reports. "More important, though, is the fact that local solar advocates and companies like Secure Solar Futures make it clear that their mission goes beyond profit. 'I don’t get anything out of this except a sense of fulfillment,' said Kelly, who became involved in solar advocacy in 2022 after learning, to her surprise, of solar’s potential in the coalfields."

Considering the region’s history, and overall distrust of energy companies, Kelly and other solar advocates in southwestern Virginia "said being local, proving solar’s benefits, and building a coalition have been key to ensuring the technology’s success in the face of cultural and political opposition," Wilson-Black writes. The group has made progess, which is on display in the coalfield community of Whitesburg, Kentucky, where "a solar pavilion and rooftop at the arts education center Appalshop has attracted curious neighbors, said Kathleen Byrne, the center’s development director."

Local focus and trust building continue to help solar succeed in the region. "McFadden said demonstrating the technology’s feasibility through community-focused projects like the 12 school installations his company is handling has changed perceptions in the area," Wilson-Black writes. "Hiring locals to install and maintain the photovoltaic panels is key, too. In 2022, Secure Solar Futures started an annual apprenticeship program that trains local high schoolers to do everything from wiring arrays to the physical heavywork of carrying and arranging panels, and pays them $17 an hour. This tangible example of a solar operation employing community members has been part of 'the proof in the pudding,' McFadden said."

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