Appalachian Ohio: A case study in compassionate transition from coal to solar

By Caitlin Garrity, marketing specialist, Third Sun Solar Appalachian Ohio still feels the effects of its not-so-distant coal mining past. From the health impacts on the people who worked in the mines, to the hills from which it was extracted, to the remaining under-employed workforce, there has long been a need for a sustainable economic solution in Appalachia. Solar workforce development is one solution identified by advocates in the region. As a non-extractive energy resource with a growing modern manufacturing sector and the means to provide gainful jobs, solar in Appalachia is a win-win-win.
Third Sun Solar has been working since 2000 in Athens County, Ohio, with the mission to accelerate the shift to clean energy. Athens County is the poorest county in the state, with 30% of the county population in poverty, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency’s “2013-2017 American Community Survey,” and neighboring Appalachian counties are not far behind. Employing former coal miners as solar installers has been an added benefit to situating the solar business in Appalachian Ohio. Third Sun is proud to help individuals earn a living in the region, with healthy working conditions, work they can feel good about and competitive compensation and benefits. Former miner and current Third Sun Solar installation technician Austin McDonald isn’t the first coal-miner-turned-solar-installer that Third Sun Solar has employed, but he is the most recent. McDonald stopped working in the mines back in 2011 with the dream of going back to school to become a nurse. When asked about his experience in the coal mines, he said that it’s not for everybody. To get to a job site, McDonald would crawl through standing water, mud, oil and goop. Often, the roof of the cave was cracking and held in place with metal bars. He had to be careful not to bring anything electronic or flammable down with him or risk potential catastrophe.

Grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) capacity increased 58% in 2008 and solar water heating capacity increased 40%; the PV industry today is 10 times larger than 1998 and likely to grow by 50% annually in the coming years; solar thermal plants covering an area equal to 9% of Nevada could generate enough electricity to power the nation; solar power is on the verge of reaching cost parity with conventional energy sources.

Soon after starting nursing school, McDonald became a father and returned to the workforce — this time as a solar installer. When asked if he would go back to school for nursing in the future, he said he doesn’t know. McDonald knows that trade work is in high demand and he’s okay with taking advantage of that for now. When asked if he would return to the mines McDonald said no.

“Coal — it’s a dying thing. There are so many alternatives out there. Alternative is the way to go, we just have to get people to understand it,” McDonald said.

Speaking on his experience as an installer, McDonald said, “I really like the job. It’s nice to have a job where you’re having a good time and being productive. You absorb all those good rays. Yeah, you sweat a little bit, but it’s nice to be outside and feel good about what you’re doing.”

Communities that identify closely with the fossil fuel industry can perceive solar as a threat. For decades, hardworking coal miners worked in our region to provide the coal necessary to power the nation’s cities and towns.

With the increase of easier and more automated extraction methods like strip mining and mountain top removal techniques, coal mining jobs have been on the decline for decades. Recently, the increase in cheap natural gas extraction has sent the number of mining jobs plummeting even further.

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With the decline of mining jobs in the region, the negative perception of solar power is shifting. Energy independence is something people in Appalachia think about. Individuals are drawn to the idea of generating their own power to not be dependent on the utility which has held power over them for so long.

Third Sun is not the only actor working to bring more solar development to Appalachian Ohio. In 2014, the nonprofit initiative UpGrade Ohio launched and produced many community-based clean energy initiatives, from introducing and passing a carbon fee (through partnerships with the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council, political advocacy group Campaign Now and the League of Women Voters) to installing electric vehicle chargers around the county.
These initiatives continue to this day as the Sustainable Energy Solutions program of Rural Action, a regional non-profit working in many counties across Appalachian Ohio. Regional training programs at Blue Rock Station, Hocking College and the Tri-County Career Center educate students on the valuable skills needed for all aspects of careers in renewable energy. Partners working at the city and county level, private foundations, along with Ohio University have also long partnered with businesses to assist in bringing more solar to the region. Today, with the help of shifting economies, strong private-public partnerships and forward-thinking leaders, solar power continues to grow in Athens County. It is emerging as a key region in the transition of coal jobs to new solar energy industry jobs.

Unlike fossil fuels, non-biomass renewable sources of energy (hydropower, wind and solar) do not directly

Other regions that are struggling with the downturn of coal jobs should look to Athens as a model for thoughtfully incorporating fossil fuel workers into the new energy economy.

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