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Bringing Solar To Coal Country In Kentucky

A former coal mine in Kentucky is being transformed into a solar power plant, but not everyone in the community is happy about it.

Martin County, Kentucky, is coal country. That means its economy is in the toilet. Where once there were thousands of coal miners in the county, today there are less than two dozen. Even when coal mining was big business in Kentucky, Martin County was far from prosperous. It is where Lyndon Johnson came to announce his much ballyhooed War On Poverty. Today, many of the former mountain tops in the county have been blown up and bulldozed into the streams and valleys below. But in an odd twist of fate, those now billiard table smooth mountain tops are ideally suited for the installation of large solar farms.

Adam Edelen, a Kentucky native and former Democratic state auditor, is the local developer of the Martin County Solar Project, a 200 megawatt solar farm atop what was once the Martiki mine. Renewable energy company Savion will be the owner of the installation, which has just cleared its last regulatory hurdle. The site was chosen specifically because it already has a the sub-station and transmission lines needed to feed all that lovely clean energy to the the grid, saving millions of dollars in connection costs.

According to the New York Times, 300 workers will be needed to install the panels. Those jobs will pay between $25 to $30 an hour, Edelen says. The United Mine Workers of America says union miners in the region average $31.40 an hour. But the majority of those jobs will be temporary. Once the Martiki solar farm is completed, it will only need about a dozen full time workers to operate it.

Edelen and Savion have worked with administrators at nearby Big Sandy Community College to create a certificate program so those temporary workers might be hired elsewhere. “Selfishly, we have other projects in the region, other developers do too, and these skills are going to be transferable,” says Erich Miarka, director of development at Savion. “There’s going to be a lot of work over the next several years.”

Renewables & Superfund Sites

The EPA has been advocating for building renewable energy installations on top of Superfund sites for more than ten years. Solar panels and wind turbines don’t care if the land beneath them is saturated with toxic chemicals and it’s better than building houses on top of them and allowing people to get sick and die from the pollution. The EPA has identified about 130,000 sites it thinks would be suitable for wind or solar projects but, so far, only 500 of them have been converted to renewable energy generation. Edelen Renewables has 18 other solar projects in the planning stages, 6 of them at the site of abandoned coal mines.

“It’s a great opportunity to address climate needs in ways that reduce environmental and social impacts, and that’s why we’re looking at this hard,” Nels Johnson, the North America director of renewable energy for the nonprofit the Nature Conservancy, tells the New York Times. His group is helping to develop solar farms on top of former mines in 8 states, including land it owns in West Virginia. “Renewable energy in those settings can bring new life to these lands.”

Not Everyone Is Happy

You might think all this would be good news for the residents of Martin County, but you would be wrong. In interviews with the New York Times, several out of work or retired miners complained the temporary jobs won’t come with benefits and will only last 12 to 18 months. After that, there may be jobs available elsewhere, but that would mean long commutes or moving. It would be so much better if coal mining would just return to Martin county so things could go back to the way they were 50 years ago.

Of all union workers, coal miners seem to be the most resistant to shifting their focus to renewable energy. They want their old jobs back and nothing else is acceptable. Mining coal has sustained families in the areas for generations. It’s hard to accept that the old ways — the culture of coal — is going the way of blacksmiths, spokeshaves, and cartwrights.

It’s all so unfair! This sense of wounded pride is the essence of the book Hillbilly Elegy. If you are a coal miner, the Constitution apparently guarantees you full employment with benefits for life for you, your children, and your grandchildren, ad infinitum. The echoes of the “culture war” reactionaries who complain bitterly about losing their “way of life” reverberate loudly in Martin county.

Some concerns from local residents are valid. Nina McCoy is a local activist and retired biology teacher. She tells the New York Times she feels the community was excluded from much of the planning process for the Martiki solar farm. She is concerned the energy generated on what’s left of the mountain won’t be shared with local residents who are facing rising utility bills.

This is a question of fairness that is heard all across the country. People who live in western New York are none too keen to see their landscape dotted with wind turbines and solar panels so people in New York City can keep their lights on. In the Southwest, the site of the former Navajo Generating Station is being turned into a renewable energy hub, but when the plant was running, all its electricity went to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other metropolitan areas.

Two-thirds of the homes on the nearby Navajo reservation had no electricity when NGS was operational and that has changed little since the solar farm next door was constructed. The transmission lines run over Navajo lands, but don’t share any of their electricity with the people living below them. Solar developers need to think more deeply about how the power being generated can be shared with local communities.

Other Martin County residents complain that the $300,000 a year the Martiki solar farm has agreed to pay the county for 30 years in lieu of taxes is too little. Lisa Stayton, publisher of local newspaper, the Mountain Citizen, says the payment really isn’t that much considering inflation. The county used to get money from each ton of coal extracted from the land, but that has dwindled to about $80,000 a year. So even though the solar farm will contribute 4 times that amount, it’s not enough, she says.

“​​People here, for the most part, are glad to see any kind of business come,” Ms. Stayton wrote in a text message to the New York Times. “That says we are still as desperate as we ever were.” Phil Smith, a lobbyist for the United Mine Workers of America, told the New York Times last month that union members have a general skepticism toward promises of economic relief. “We’ve heard the same things over and over and over again going back to J.F.K.”

The Takeaway

It’s difficult to listen to the complaints of people who sat idly by and watched their communities leveled by coal companies and their land polluted by mining with never a peep of protest. 21 years ago, the area was devastated when a coal slurry containment lagoon ruptured its banks and dumped 250 million gallons of toxic coal waste laced with arsenic and mercury into the mine below. From there, the water found its way into local waterways and suffocated every frog, fish, and snapping turtle in its path. It also contaminated the county’s drinking water.

Solar power plants, by definition, need no slurry containment ponds. They also require far fewer workers than mines and thermal generating plants, which means they won’t create thousands of permanent jobs for the local economy. New technologies are slashing the number of workers needed in many industries from shipping to manufacturing and transportation. Finding ways to keep everyone who wants a job fully employed in the future will be a daunting task for political leaders at the local, national, and international level.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we heed his advice.


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