Renewables in... coal country?

By Graham Marema
Clean Water Network, Digital Organizer

 

Whitesburg, Kentucky, in 1993

I was born in Appalachian coal country. Our house in Kentucky was so close to the railroad tracks, you could feel every room shake when a train passed. These trains carried large open-topped cars of coal, or “gons,” through our front yard and past the small town of Whitesburg where I was born. That small town only got smaller as the coal industry started packing its bags.

We talk a lot about how fossil fuels are unsustainable for our environment, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the healthy future we all envision. People in these old coal towns know better than anyone that fossil fuels also create unsustainable systems for rural communities. And while these communities often get left out of the renewable energy conversation, they have some of the biggest stakes in the transition to an energy source that can sustain our planet and the rural towns that dot it.

Facing an existential threat, it’s no wonder these same communities are becoming leaders in the clean energy transition. Last fall, Louisville filmmaker Ben Evans released his documentary “Evolve: Driving a Clean Future in Coal Country,” showing the rise of electric vehicles in the rural South -- especially places that have often been labeled as “coal country,” such as rural Kentucky.

"What surprised me is that folks in eastern Kentucky are a lot more enthusiastic about the prospect of new energy, energy like solar and battery technology, than I would have thought they might have been,” Evans said.

Whether or not people are talking about it nationally, “coal country” is embracing new forms of clean energy. Kentucky will soon boast its largest solar farm ever, with 86 megawatts of power at midday peak, putting it in the top 2 percent of solar plants in the country, according to the EPA. Tennessee just completed its largest landfill solar project, turning a rural brownfield into a field of solar arrays. Alabama just announced a new 800-acre solar farm containing 350,000 panels in Montgomery County.

Ironically, even the Kentucky Coal Museum is partly powered by solar. While visitors view the history of fossil fuels in rural Appalachia, 80 solar panels are hard at work over their heads, powering the museum with clean, renewable energy.

It’s not just solar. Wind energy is on the rise in rural Appalachia as well, especially in states such as Virginia, which also have coasts. Those geographically-diverse states are making moves to tap into the enormous potential of offshore wind.

Projects like these are popping up all over the rural South. Appalshop, an Appalachian arts, media, and education center, just started working on the largest net-metered solar project in eastern Kentucky. This solar project will power 60 to 70 percent of the center’s energy usage with clean, renewable energy.

This project speaks  to me personally because both of my parents worked there during my childhood, and because Appalshop is in the heart of Whitesburg, Kentucky -- the same place where I used to hide in the kitchen from the sound of coal gons roaring down the tracks outside.

 

Appalshop as I remember it (on left); me, my brother, and my dad in Appalshop in 1996 - I'm the redhead hiding behind the phone (on right).

Coal country isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of renewable energy. But rural organizers, leaders, and community members are showing that renewables can be a source of clean energy and community empowerment -- a standard that coal just can’t live up to.

The energy revolution isn’t restricted to certain parts of the country. It doesn’t belong in either red states or blue states, in urban areas or in rural, in coal country or outside of it. Renewables are on the rise everywhere, roaring through small towns like Whitesburg, rattling every room of our houses, waking us all up to a future that can and will be sustainable.