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Bridging the Gap Between Coal and Solar

In 1931, the Williamson, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce released a booklet celebrating the town. The cover shows, embedded within a cartoon heart, a photograph of the Williamson skyline. We see a bustling, industrious town perched above the Tug River with a railroad shifting coal cars to and from the rest of Appalachia. At the bottom of the booklet’s cover is Williamson’s slogan: “Heart of the Billion-Dollar Coal Field.”

Today, much of that 1930s infrastructure has survived. Williamson, the Mingo County seat, still has the railroad and the coal industry but the county population has shrunk to a third of what it was in 1930 – and it’s a trend that isn’t stopping. The population decreased five percent in the last ten years alone. Worse, not nearly enough of the billion dollars has remained at home. Nearly 27 percent of Williamson residents live in poverty, including 34 percent of the children.

“There’s a fixation about calling out what the problem is instead of fixing it,” says Eric Mathis, President of the JOBS Project. The JOBS Project, along with other local partners, has created a new approach to economic development called Sustainable Williamson, a comprehensive effort to make Williamson one of the most healthy, green, and economically viable cities in central Appalachia. If this model finds success in West Virginia, it can then be replicated throughout struggling mountain communities in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. For Mathis, it’s not enough for Williamson to return to where it was in its heyday. It should set an example for the rest of the nation to follow.

He’s not alone. “The reason this town exists is because of the coal companies,” says Mayor Darrin McCormick. If America’s current energy system was built on the backs of Appalachian communities, he reasons, why can’t the next one? “What better place for it to happen than here, a city that’s already been a leader?”

The new energy system is solar energy, and with the help of Sustainable Williamson, it is already happening in West Virginia. They persuaded Mountain View Solar from Berkeley Springs, WV to train Mathew Gilliam, a local third generation electrician, to install solar panels. They then hired him to install solar panels on a local doctor’s office. Gilliam was happy to learn the new skill, calling solar energy “a coming thing in the world of energy.” He had been interested in solar energy for a while and took this opportunity to start his own solar company. “There’s quite a market for solar in this area. Everybody hates getting that big power bill.”

Gilliam’s partner, Murphy Poindexter, a West Virginian who spent three years working in solar power in Japan, points to other examples throughout the rest of the world. “Germany is the largest and most successful solar market in the world and West Virginia on average has 30 percent more sunlight.” Poindexter sees some areas committing the same missteps as Japan when implementing solar, and he wants to help West Virginia avoid those mistakes. “Some states just give a ton of money and say, ‘Put solar up.’…This gives them no guidelines or standards for quality performance.” Japan, he said, dumped money into solar but didn’t implement proper regulations. “You could sell panels to someone on the north side of their house, which only works 65 percent as well as it should. If we do that here, people will think, ‘We tried solar and it didn’t work.’ West Virginians don’t forget.”

If Appalachian solar companies learn from the mistakes of other countries, “in five years, West Virginia could have as much solar energy as any leading market. We want to respect the legacy of natural resources in our state while bringing in a new solar business that just adds to the economy at large, bridging the gap between coal and solar,” said Poindexter.

To call Sustainable Williamson an environmental project, a jobs project or a health project misses the point because it assumes they are different things. In truth, they are intertwined.

For example, by promoting healthy environmental practices, Sustainable Williamson can also help the city’s infrastructure. The JOBS Project is assisting in making the local fire department more sustainable. The city of Williamson hired local contractors to install new lighting, ceiling tile and a heating and AC system. “The reason we jumped on this was to save money,” says Fire Chief Jerry Mounts. “If you can find a way to cut your heating and cooling bills, that’s another dollar the city can spend on filling pot holes, on infrastructure.”

The fact that the improvements are made with local labor is not an accident. “We encourage hiring local talent,” Mathis says. “If we can’t find somebody local, we’ll get somebody here to train the locals.” Mathis emphasizes the importance of training to create as many local businesses as possible, even if it means training your competitors. “Competition is important for building a healthy market that will ensure the region’s future development of renewable energy resources.”

“If you approached this with a narrow scope, that would be a problem,” says Dino Beckett, a local doctor who worked with The JOBS Project to open a free health clinic for Williamson’s uninsured and underinsured. “If you just did health, just did jobs, just did the environment, it wouldn’t work…All things are synergistic.”

One of the main challenges Sustainable Williamson faces is that people assume it is a political project. “All we want to create is an economy of ideas,” Mathis says. “Some environmentalists want to create a dichotomy – renewable energy is a liberal idea. But why?” Mathis is trying to debunk the perception that the fight for sustainability, health, and jobs has to be a liberal or conservative issue.

If people see sustainability as a political issue, he says, then some will shut down completely, others will embrace it reflexively, and no one will examine its merits. The solutions are complex and the problems are far-reaching, but the reward is an Appalachia that is the envy of the nation – the heart of another billion-dollar industry.