In the heart of coal country, one community is bridging the gap between the RE and coal industries.
In downtown Williamson, West Virginia, the Coal House—a building erected in 1933 from 65 tons of coal taken from the nearby Winifrede Seam—stands as a symbol of the region’s coal mining legacy. But next door, located in ground-floor space of the historic Mountaineer Hotel, a “smart office” is taking shape, powered by a 3-kilowatt grid-tied PV system on the building’s roof. Designed to serve as a high-tech hub for the region’s RE development, the office houses Sustainable Williamson (SW)—a nonprofit formed in 2010 by the city of Williamson’s redevelopment authority.
Side by side, the two spaces represent a vision for Williamson’s future—one in which fossil fuels and RE coexist. “We’re trying to transcend the traditional conflict-based approaches. You can’t make progress here with the us-against-them mentality,” says Eric Mathis, the director of Strategic Initiatives for SW.
Mathis—who describes himself as an evolutionary, not an environmentalist—appreciates the hope RE represents for economically depressed Appalachian communities, but he is sensitive to the region’s coal legacy. He believes there is room for both coal and RE—a belief that, he admits, makes him pretty unpopular in some circles.
“Environmentalists either love me or hate me. It is easy to say everything about coal is evil when talking about a nameless, faceless coal company you read about in the news. Here, we’re talking about real people, generations of men and women who have worked hard to provide energy for this country. People are quick to forget that coal spurred the industrial revolution, and has essentially powered the lifestyles and luxuries we’ve enjoyed,” Mathis says.
Born and raised in rural North Carolina, Mathis is among the minority in Williamson who does not have a direct lineage to the coalfields. He moved to Williamson in 2006 after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he spearheaded one of the country’s first student-led RE initiatives. He worked as a data analyst at a local law firm until he saved up enough money to start The Jobs Project, a nonprofit program that provided RE job training and resources for entrepreneurs. In collaboration with the Williamson redevelopment authority, Mathis joined forces with other community groups to form SW.
The organization is tasked with the challenge of preparing Williamson for life after coal. As production in the region slows, and mining operations become increasingly automated and less labor-intensive, Williamson and other coal communities need new revenue streams and new jobs to survive.
Faced with a city budget gap, Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick entered office and raised the fees for general city services (i.e., trash, fire, police, and sewer) in 2007, but he told his constituents that he would do everything in his power to avoid another fee increase. He heard about Mathis’ jobs program, and began brainstorming with him about ways for the city to reduce its bills and operate more efficiently. Though he admits to being skeptical at first, he came around to the idea of RE. “A lot of Williamson residents are on fixed incomes, and rate hikes have a detrimental effect on their quality of life. I knew it was time do something, and energy efficiency and renewable energy made sense, but I knew we could not turn our backs on coal,” McCormick says.
“Coal may be a dirty four-letter word to some people, but around here, it is a way of life—how people have put food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs,” says McCormick. “Despite what the rest of the country believes, we realize that coal is a finite industry, and to survive, we realize that we need to create new opportunities. We’re making progress here in Williamson because, instead of attacking our way of life and trying to take down coal, we’re respecting it and trying to preserve it. Sustainability, energy efficiency, and renewable energy not only give our community a future after coal, but they also allow us to extend the life of the industry and have the time we need to build our new economy.”
A grant from West Virginia’s Department of Energy provided lighting and HVAC efficiency upgrades to city government buildings. The city also received grants and training through a redevelopment program. But Mathis says the city is trying “to steer clear of handouts and subsidies” and “rely on the market to drive financing for energy projects.”
The plan is to create new jobs by diversifying the region’s energy portfolio with utility-scale biomass and solar projects. The ultimate goal, Mathis says, is to convert Williamson to a microgrid system, which would draw from “integrated energy parks.” There, utility-scale natural gas, biomass, and solar projects would occupy active and reclaimed mine sites. Drawing on a microgrid would allow the city greater control in choosing what energy sources are used and when they are used to meet the city’s demand, and help keep utility rates down.
However, building a microgrid may take decades. For now, Mathis is focusing on ways to draw energy developers to the region. A centerpiece of the SW plan is job training. “Having a labor force skilled in sustainable technologies will make this region more attractive and viable for developers,” Mathis says.
With oversight from professional installers, crews of SW volunteers and trainees have installed several PV systems, including an evacuated tube solar thermal system on the Williamson Fire Station and an 11.3-kilowatt rooftop system on the town’s health and wellness center. The SW team is also engineering a pilot solar garden that will provide power for five city government buildings from a former hilltop-mining site. It will be the first of several in the region, Mathis hopes, though replicating the concept in other communities may be restricted by the state’s current two-mile limitation on virtual net metering.
Mathis utilizes each solar installation in town as a training opportunity, inviting local contractors and electricians to participate. He also recruited several volunteers from a green-construction training program run by Coalfield Development Corporation, a nonprofit that builds green homes for low-income families. One of those volunteers was 21-year-old Josh Napier, who worked on the system at the fire department and, more recently, the smart office (see “Getting Smarter” sidebar). Napier says he is now planning to pursue additional solar training and someday start his own construction business.
Mathis is also developing a formal training program in green construction and solar installation with the Sustainability Institute at the Bridgemont Community and Technical College in Montgomery. The program will include testing through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, as well as on-the-job training. The goal is to train high school graduates, but also train out-of-work miners and coalfield tradespeople.
While Mathis’ openness to coal may not sit well with some, his ideas have won national recognition. He was a 2010 recipient of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Innovation Award for Community Renewables and a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Greening our Cities and Towns. Naysayers may have their doubts as to whether SW can pull off all of its grand plans, but Mathis remains confident. “Change,” he says, “is on the horizon.”