Leaving a Life in the Coal Mines Behind – Part Two

This is the second part of a four-part article on alternative-energy jobs for out-of-work coal miners in Wyoming and West Virginia.

By DIANE CARDWELL, Oct. 1, 2017 for The New York Times

Hands-On Practice

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Coal mining was already dead in Crum, a town of less than 200 just this side of the Kentucky border, by the time Ethan Spaulding, 26, graduated from high school, he said. That dashed his hopes of becoming a roof bolter, helping stabilize the ceilings of mine tunnels. “You don’t even have to have a high school diploma to go to the coal industry,” he said, “and you can start making $150,000 a year.” Or perhaps you once could.

Mr. Spaulding was standing near the railroad tracks at the edge of town where trains move coal out of the region, behind a dilapidated brick building that once housed a high-end suit factory. It is becoming a hub for the family of social enterprises that Coalfield Development leads, which include rehabilitating buildings, installing solar panels, and an agriculture program that grows produce and is turning an old mine site into a solar-powered fish farm.

Corey Adkins, 32, in the greenhouse at Coalfield Development’s West Edge Factory in Huntington, W.Va. The greenhouse is part of an agriculture program that is to include a solar-powered fish farm. Credit George Etheridge for The New York Times

Wanting to stay in Crum, Mr. Spaulding went through the solar program Coalfield runs with Solar Holler, which offers its participants a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship. He is now a crew chief at the training center, overseeing the renovation of a larger classroom inside the building. Though he is optimistic that he can eventually reach his target income in the solar industry, the installation jobs for which the trainees will ultimately qualify generally pay far less — $26 an hour, on average, nationally.

And yet there is keen interest. For David Ward, 40, managing installations at Solar Holler helps repay the student loans he ran up pursuing a degree in counseling — a growth industry in a state reeling from opioid addiction. An electrician, he said he was “interested in the idea of making your own power and the environmental impact.”

The program is the brainchild of Brandon Dennison and Dan Conant, two West Virginians who wanted to help develop a sustainable economy in the state. Mr. Dennison, 31, started Coalfield Development in 2010; it grew out of a volunteer effort to build low-income green housing. Mr. Conant, 32, had worked on political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s first presidential contest. After becoming involved in the solar industry, he concluded that rooftop solar development, with its individual, decentralized nature, could combine the door-to-door approach of political campaigning with a technology to fight climate change.

He completed the first Solar Holler project — putting panels on the Presbyterian church in his hometown, Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River — and, quickly overwhelmed with demand for similar installations, realized the state didn’t have a work force to handle it. So he formed a partnership with Mr. Dennison’s organization to develop one. At Coalfield’s facility here, participants learn how the arrays create electricity and connect to the power system, but they also get practice installing panels on a shed behind the main building. That helps them clear one of the basic industry hurdles: becoming comfortable working on a roof.

Installing a solar panel on the roof of a house in Lewisburg, W.Va. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

To be continued

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s