World News America

BBC News
Page last updated at 13:51 GMT, Tuesday, 29 June 2010 14:51 UK

West Virginia's solar powered dilemma

Solar panels are prepared for installation on a house in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
It is costing $52,000 (31,000) to install solar panels at a Berkley Springs home

By Marc Adams
BBC World News America

Ask any West Virginian about coal and you will hear that it is not just a source of energy, it is a way of life. Some feel that way of life is being threatened by the introduction of solar power in the state.

Coal has been mined out of the rolling hills and mountains of West Virginia for more than a century, earning it the distinguished reputation as the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi.

The black mineral has been the foundation of West Virginia's economy and ensuring the stability of most other industries in the state.

But there is a hint of change. Spurred by the shock of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a reinvigorated national energy debate and all against a backdrop of a continuing recession. People in small towns across the state have started to talk about alternatives.

'Small inroads'

Mike McKechnie and his colleagues at Mountain View Solar and Wind hope to provide those alternatives by taking their solar installations from the company's base in West Virginia's panhandle into the heart of the state's coal country.

Mike McKechnie explains how he approaches doubtful local consumers

"Fossil fuel is a finite source. It will eventually run out.

"That won't," said McKechnie as he pointed up toward the sun.

"At some point the transition will have to be made. Making it now is a good idea, especially in our state."

The energy coming from McKechnie's panels is just a drop in the bucket compared to the dominance of coal.

Still, McKechnie said business is growing. His company is already carving small inroads into the coal minded community of Williamson, a small town on the state's southern border with Kentucky.

He is under no illusion that it will be a smooth road.

"It'll be a little tougher fit there because it'll be more of 'You're taking my livelihood away' when in actuality it will be the same model. It will be an enhancement of an already existing energy business."

Bad impression

The energy business in Williamson is obvious. Day and night, trains cut through the heart of the small cluster of buildings in this West Virginia town, most hauling endless tons of coal from nearby mines.

Right on Williamson's main street is the historic Mountaineer Hotel where owners Edna Thompson and Mark Mitchell have decided to become one of the first businesses in town to adopt solar technology.

Their panels are scheduled to be installed in late July.

The Coal House
Williamson's Chamber of Commerce meets in a coal-made building

"We thought it would be a great idea.

"I mean it's gonna pay for itself in a few years and then it'll be making money for the hotel, energy for the hotel," Ms Thompson told the BBC. "Why not?"

While it might make sense for their bottom line, Ms Thompson still has some anxieties about how it will be received. After all, most of her guests and friends in the community come from the mining industry.

"Sometimes you don't talk about it because you think you're gonna get a negative reaction 'cause you don't want your friends to think negatively about you or your business. So it's hard. It's very hard."

Fears that renewable energy generation could jeopardise jobs in coal have created friction in the community and the greater region of southern West Virginia.

Many just do not see it as a viable option. They are concerned that it could drive coal jobs out without pulling all of the nearly 50,000 people that currently work in West Virginia's coal mines in.

And that is to say nothing of the thousands more who work indirectly with coal.

'A way of life'

The concern for jobs is shared by many at this year's West Virginia Coal Festival in Madison, West Virginia.

"Yes we'd like to have cleaner energy," festival attendant John Harden said.

"Yes we'd like to get away from dirty fuels. We'd like to have healthier jobs.

"But we also need jobs for our people. This area, without coal, is starvation."

Complete with sash and crown, Miss West Virginia Coal Festival beams with pride as she recounts licking her father's coal boots as a young girl after he returned home from working in the mine.

Energy Data
Williamson, WV
Ninety nine percent of electricity consumed in West Virginia comes from coal
Renewable energy makes up 9% of the total electricity consumed nationwide
Coal accounts for more than 50% nationwide
Sources: West Virginia Coal Assn, US Energy Information Administration

"This is our way of life," Ariana Bailey said. "If they took away coal, we would have nothing."

And yet, back in Williamson, even the mayor is interested in going solar.

"I see it as a way of diversifying our economy through increasing job opportunities in the technology involved in installing the things and really you're preserving our way of life by strengthening our natural resources," Mayor Darrin McCormick said.

And if it were up to Eric Mathis of The Jobs Project - a group partnering with Mountain View Solar and Wind to bring solar power to Williamson - everyone in the town would be on board.

"It's not just me coming in with ideas," Mathis said. "There's a lot of switches going off in people's heads showing me they've been thinking about it before I knocked on the door."

He tries to reassure people that there can be a future of both solar and coal for now.

"I'm not here to take jobs. I'm here to bring jobs. I'm here to actually bring development."

But Roger Horton, director of Citizens for Coal, said that even though discussions are happening around renewable energies even within the coal industry, the solution has not come yet.

"This magic bullet has to do a number of things. It has to provide the energy reliably, safely, affordably, and employ people because without the employment, there is no need to have that power source.

"You have to have employment where people can provide for their families."

Mike McKechnie of Mountain View Solar admits that coal will be around for many years into the future. Meanwhile, tensions in Williamson will continue.

But with the gulf oil spill and the prospect of new climate legislation being considered in congress, Mike is hoping to gain a better foothold in small mining towns throughout the state of West Virginia.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific