Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The move will save the museum $8,000 to $10,000 a year in energy costs.
Call it the canary in a coal mine—but for America’s coal industry itself.
In Kentucky, where voters are still hanging on to President Donald Trump’s promise to bring back mining jobs, the museum that celebrates the founding of the coal industry is making the switch to clean, renewable power. The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is currently installing 80 rooftop solar panels to cut down on energy costs amid budget cuts to the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, which owns the museum.
Even Brandon Robinson, the communications director for the college, sensed the irony. “It is a little ironic," he told WYMT this week. "But you know, coal and solar and all the different energy sources work hand-in-hand.” The project is expected to save the college $8,000 to $10,000 a year—money that will go right back to the students. In addition, a statement released Friday added that two other sites in the town of Benham are being considered for solar panel installation: a local park near the museum and the Tri-City Little League field. Altogether, the project costs between $400,000 and $500,000, funded by various foundations.
The decline of coal in the U.S. will likely continue not so much because of a “war on coal,” but because other forms of energy—like coal’s top competitor, natural gas—are just more economical. Not only that, but the costs of solar and wind energy are expected to fall as the technology becomes more advanced. According to Bluegrass Solar, the company installing panels for the museum, it only takes 20 panels to power a home. That could cost between $17,000 and $20,000, but would pay itself off in five to seven years via savings on energy bills.
A 2016 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that Kentucky has over 1.4 billion square feet of roof area suitable for installing solar panels. Solar currently accounts for less than 1 percent of Kentucky’s overall electricity generation, but if every bit of that rooftop space was covered with the new technology, it could generate a quarter of the electricity sold by the state’s utilities.
But the museum’s move toward solar energy isn’t the only thing unraveling hopes that Trump will someday bring back coal. In March, for example, the state’s Owensboro Municipal Utilities announced that after 116 years, it will shut down the coal-burning units at its only power plant by 2023. Elsewhere across the nation, 251 coal plants have retired since 2010, according to The Sierra Club. Another 751 coal-powered units have also been shut down.
Meanwhile as coal jobs decline, falling by over 50 percent since 1990, CityLab has reported that in 2015, the solar energy industry grew 12 times faster than the overall economy. It grew 20 percent between 2014 and 2015, employing over 200,000 people and making up 1.2 percent of all new jobs in the U.S. in that time. In fact, the solar industry in Kentucky may be small—it ranks 32 in the list of best states for solar jobs, according to The Solar Foundation—but it’s steadily growing. The nonprofit calculated that there were 1,202 solar jobs last year, a 20 percent increase from 2015.
Still, Robinson acknowledged that in Kentucky, “coal is still king around here.” Yet across America, coal has long been dethroned, and if the museum’s decision is any indication, the demand for cheaper and cleaner energy is coming for that crown in Kentucky.