If solar energy were Dan Conant’s only passion, the West Virginia native could have stayed in Vermont, working for a fast-growing startup in a state friendly to renewables.
Instead, Conant returned home to Shepherdstown, where he started an installation company, Solar Holler, in 2014. Now, with three employees and a crew under contract, Conant’s new passion comes with an audacious goal: bring solar jobs to communities hit hard by the decline of coal.
“I really feel like we’re in a race against time, that it’s important we diversify quickly so young folks don’t have to move away,” says Conant. “It’s been really frustrating over the years to see all of my friends leave – pretty much everyone I went to high school with. The state is experiencing a serious brain drain.”
Conant is part of a small group of entrepreneurs who believe in the possibility of replacing disappearing coal jobs with employment in solar in West Virginia. It’s a monumental challenge. The state lacks the mix of solar-friendly regulations, financial incentives and high electricity prices that have made solar affordable and created a booming market in states such as California and Massachusetts.
Despite the odds, Conant and his allies are finding ways around some of the obstacles. They point to the falling cost of solar energy systems that will help to make renewable energy more attractive to West Virginians. Conant and other proponents of solar also believe that the market forces that have made coal a more expensive and less desirable commodity will eventually persuade the state’s politicians to abandon the idea of resurrecting the declining industry.
The economic picture of West Virginia is bleak. The Mountain State has the nation’s seventh-highest poverty rate. The number of coal jobs dropped from nearly 25,000 in 2011 to fewer than 11,500 in the third quarter of 2016. And those numbers only represent mining itself. When mines shut down, it affects everything – local businesses that serve the industry’s employees and their families lose revenue and government services are hurt by a shrinking tax base.
Automation and less labor-intensive extraction methods such as strip mining and mountaintop removal caused job losses for decades, but stricter environmental regulations and a boom in natural gas, which made it cheaper than coal, have contributed to steeper job cuts in recent years, says Brian Lego, a research assistant professor who studies the coalmining industry at West Virginia University. Coal production fell from 158m tons in 2008 to 80m tons in 2016, Lego says.
The state’s political leaders recognize the need to promote industries beyond coal, but their plans don’t include the renewable energy sector. The newly elected governor, Jim Justice, says he wants to create more jobs in harvesting timber, building roads and other infrastructure, tourism and agriculture. Justice, a billionaire Democrat who owns a resort, a coal company and a large farm operation, also isn’t giving up on reviving the coal business.
With just over 1.8 million residents, West Virginia ranks 38th in population but second only to Illinois in population loss. Federal census data shows that the state’s population fell by 10,000 people during the 12 months ending July 2016.
Against the depressing backdrop, the growth of the solar industry nationwide offers hope to people like 31-year-old Conant. The industry employed more than 260,000 people in 2016, a 25% increase over the previous year, according to the annual job census by the Solar Foundation.
The survey, which counts full and part-time workers, found 381 solar-related jobs in West Virginia in 2016, including installation, sales, project development and manufacturing. One of the state’s largest installers, Mountain View Solar, based in Berkeley Springs in the eastern panhandle, employs about 25 people and works on projects in neighboring Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington DC.
The capacity for generating solar electricity from systems at homes and businesses reached 5.1 megawatts in West Virginia in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s a tiny amount compared with the 2,583 megawatts installed in the US residential market in 2016 alone.]
One of Conant’s strategies to build a strong business is to contract workers from Coalfield Development Corp, a nonprofit training organization in the south-western county of Wayne that offers a 2.5-year, paid apprenticeship program and employs 50 staff members and apprentices. Coalfield trains its workers to do a variety of construction work, including installing solar panels and electrical equipment. The partnership is cost effective for Conant because his company doesn’t shoulder the cost of recruiting workers or employing them in between installations, when they are redeployed on other Coalfield construction projects.
“It sounds really bold to say it, but what we’re trying to do is to rebuild the Appalachian economy from the ground up,” says Brandon Dennison, Coalfield’s co-founder and CEO, who grew up in Wayne County. “We’re not ashamed to say we need to diversify our economy because it’s not been good for anybody to be so dependent on one thing. We don’t get into the moral argument of coal being good or bad, we just talk about jobs and entrepreneurship.”
Since joining forces in 2015, Solar Holler and Coalfield have done rooftop solar projects and LED lighting installations for churches, a public library, a building owned by Catholic Charities, some affordable housing units and local businesses. Solar Holler is working on 1 megawatt-worth of projects at various stages of development, or enough to power about 100 homes, Conant says.
Coalfield offers out-of-worker miners, such as Jared Blalock, a chance to learn new skills, including solar installation. “I enjoy the work,” says Blalock, a 29-year-old father of two boys who worked in the mines for six years. “It’s a lot easier on the body, I’ll tell you that.”
But at this point, he can’t count on solar work for long-term employment, he says, and a small nonprofit like Coalfield can’t compete with coal industry pay. Like the other apprentices, Blalock works 33 hours a week while earning a college degree, which he hopes will lead to a higher-paying job in construction management. The coal industry’s pay typically starts at $60,000 to $70,000, and he was making even more when he got laid off.
“Last year I made $77,000, so I’ve taken a 50-60% pay cut,” Blalock says.
Creating better-paying jobs will depend partly on whether companies are able to increase demand by helping their customers finance the purchase of solar systems. The state prohibits purchase agreements for power or solar leases, which are popular in solar-friendly states and allow people to pay little or no upfront cost to install solar panels.
Instead, West Virginians have to pay in full with cash or a loan. A residential solar energy system generally costs between $15,000 and $20,000 on average nationwide, before a federal tax credit that offsets it by 30%.
The tax credit doesn’t apply to nonprofit organizations, however. That has prompted Conant to experiment with different ways to help Solar Holler’s customers find funding.
He came up with a solution for several projects, including a $55,000 rooftop system at Shepherdstown Presbyterian. Solar Holler helped arrange for a bank loan and lined up 100 members in the community who were willing to help pay off the loan by having an energy control device on their water heaters.
The device, installed by Mosaic Power in Maryland, allows Mosaic Power to remotely turn the heaters on or off to help the electric grid operator manage supply and demand. For example, the grid operator pays to shut off heaters – in short intervals that won’t interrupt hot water use – when demand for electricity is high. Each household with the device can earn about $100 a year, which the folks in Shepherdstown donate to the church to pay off the loan.
Building a solar market in a coal state will require patience. Coalfield is set to begin work on a new solar training center, located in Huntington, but the training there will include retrofitting lighting and installing cables because there aren’t yet enough solar projects for new recruits.
The lack of supportive policies and low electricity rates are keeping many other solar companies away from West Virginia for now.
“Because electricity is relatively cheap in West Virginia, it hurts the economics of installing a solar system, though that may not always be the case,” says Michael Kirby, the regional sales manager for Maryland and Washington DC for Direct Energy Solar. He points out that electricity prices tend to rise rather than fall, saying: “The cost to install solar has been cut in half over the last five or six years, which has made it viable in a lot of states where it wasn’t before.”
Still, Direct Energy, which operates in a number of Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, has no plans to move into the Mountain State quite yet.
Conant, meanwhile, is undeterred. “Renewables are going to be the main source of energy long term – it’s just a question of when,” he says. “I believe there’s a role for West Virginia to play, and we don’t necessarily need Californian companies or Massachusetts companies to come in and build up the industry for us. We can do it ourselves.”