Just 20 years ago, the southwest Virginia town of Wise was the seat of the state's largest coal-producing county, the epicenter of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, the rooftops of more than 20 homes and small businesses in this small town in the hills are equipped with solar arrays, all installed just in the past year.

The new installations are the result of a recent initiative seeking to foster new economic opportunity in a region decimated by the loss of coal jobs. According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, coal production in the Commonwealth's top three coal-producing counties has fallen 74 percent from its peak output in 1990. Meanwhile, statewide, coal jobs have dropped from 25,000 to less than 2,500.

James Bacon, who spent 25 years covering the coalfield beat for the Roanoke Times, says the decline affected more than just coal companies. "It devastated businesses that supplied the mines with everything from timbers, rock dust, and roof bolts, to heavy trucks and continuous mining machines," he says.

In Wise County, unemployment spiked at around 12 percent in 2014. Today, it remains almost double that of the state average. Meanwhile, more than one in five residents live below the poverty line.

Hoping to spark regional economic collaboration, the University of Virginia College at Wise sponsored the first annual southwest Virginia economic development forum in the spring of 2016. Hopes for revitalizing the coal industry were dismissed as imprudent and unreliable—beyond environmental concerns, a VDMME representative told participants the state's most cost-effective deposits have all been mined. Promoting growth in the solar energy sector was now a primary focus.

Becki Joyce, director of the office of economic development and engagement at UVA-Wise, says investing in solar is common sense. According to U.S. Department of Energy, the solar industry now employs more Virginians than the oil, natural gas, and coal industries combined. The state installed 190 megawatts of solar generating capacity in 2016, and another 198 in 2017, with projections only increasing over the next five years.

Joyce says the solar boom has reached Virginia.

"Developing solar industry in the region isn't going to fix everything, but it can be a big part of the solution," says Joyce.

Toward that end, the forum spawned a partnership between the college's economic development office, Appalachian Voices, the VDMME, Sigora Solar, local governments, and the Southwest Virginia Technology Council. The committee, dubbed the Solar Work Group, released its Solar Roadmap for Southwest Virginia early last December. With input from local non-profits, environmentalists, staffing agencies, educators, business owners, government offices, legislators and officials, the Roadmap is the first comprehensive regionally targeted solar plan in state history.

The solar industry now employs more Virginians than the oil, natural gas, and coal industries combined.

The Roadmap outlines a goal of installing some 260 megawatts of solar on 1,830 residences and 79 businesses, plus developing five utility-scale installations by 2027.

Even Charles Patton, president of one of the region's largest utility companies, Appalachian Power, admits coal is on its way out.

"There is not a utility in the nation today that is building coal plants," he says. "No one has a coal plant on their planning horizon." Although Appalachian Power's parent company, AEP, opened a coal plant in Arkansas in 2012, Patton expects it will be the last one built—not just in his career, but in his lifetime. "Solar and wind have no fuel costs associated with them, so over time, if you integrate them into your system, they can bring incredible value. We believe in them. We believe in deploying them. But it's complicated."

A solar workshop hosted by the VA cooperative extension and Azimuth solar. (Credit: Appalachian Voices)

In the career and technical center of Ridgeview High School in rural Dickenson County, Chris Owens's classroom is bustling with students interested in learning more about sustainable and renewable technology. Huddled around a large table, they inspect a working scale-model of a home featuring a miniature, student-installed array of solar panels. Positioned before a sun-flooded window, the panels power LEDs that light the structure's interior.

Sporting a scraggly beard and close-cropped blond hair, the 32-year-old instructor fires off questions about battery life, panel positioning, generating capacity, cost-savings, and so on. Owens says the newly offered class teaches students about environmental health, and explores solutions offered by sustainable agriculture, energy-efficient building design, and renewable energy sources.

"In part, we developed the curriculum to broaden options for students who might've traditionally gone to work in the coal industry," he says. "It's a way to help these kids explore career possibilities they might not have thought about before."

"Developing solar industry in the region isn't going to fix everything, but it can be a big part of the solution."

In coal country, where pro-renewable energy statements often register as anathema, it can be an uphill battle. Coal companies and electric utilities have long been investing in politicizing the loss of coal jobs, painting solar energy as self-sabotage against the possible return of the booming local economy it once fed. As a result, despite VDMME statements correlating jobs losses to the depletion of easily minable deposits, the assumption for many is that supporting solar comes at the expense of coal.

Locals echo that statement. "My son and husband both worked the mines, and have lost their jobs," says Tammy Mondrage, a former school nurse who lives in nearby Steinman. "We need to focus on bringing those jobs back, not doing things that will take them away."

Located just 10 miles from Ridgeview, Steinman's name refers to a pair of legendary coal-mining brothers from the 19th century.

Raised in a family of coal miners, Owens understands the opposition better than most. "Look, I put myself through college working in the same coal mine as my dad, and I hate to see those jobs go as much as anyone," he says. "But renewable energy is the future. Technical advances are making solar cheaper and more competitive by the day. And I'm hoping to give our students a leg up."

When Owens and other Ridgeview employees heard about the Solar Workgroup, they reached out to committee members, and formed a partnership. With the workgroup's help, Ridgeview is in the running for a $500,000 Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative grant, which would serve as a down-payment for a proposed 350-kilowatt rooftop solar array.

"There's a perception of miners as bumpkins still living in the 19th century, and that's simply not true. We operated highly sophisticated machinery, worked with cutting-edge software, and pulled off feats of engineering on a daily-basis. If the work is there, we can easily transition to solar."

While the school system is primarily interested in cost-savings—about $1.7 million over the next 25 years—Owens says he would incorporate the solar panels as a hands-on instructional tool. "It would give students the opportunity to learn how larger solar systems work," he says. And perhaps more importantly: "Show them this is happening right here in their backyards, not just Germany or California."

2017 Solar Fair at UVa-Wise. (Credit: Jimmy Davidson)

Ridgeview is just one of 16 "Ambassador Sites" designated by the Roadmap as ideal for solar development. Other selections include a bank, pharmacy, grocery store, county business park, community college, primary school, medical center, hospital, low-income housing complex, and a retirement home.

Ten of the sites are tax-exempt entities or government buildings which Lydia Graves, a new economy field director for Appalachian Voices, says are eligible for grant funding and special financing. The others are private businesses that have indicated an interest in going solar, and would be strong candidates for various grants, tax credits, and low-interest financing options.

In every case, Workgroup projections show that the institution or businesses would experience substantial cost-savings, both from savings in energy costs and as the result of grants and tax credits.

"Essentially, the goal is to establish a new normal," says Wise County resident and clerk of court Jack Kennedy. Kennedy is an attorney specializing in aeronautics, and formerly represented the region as a delegate at the Virginia General Assembly. By his estimate, too many people and businesses in the region view solar as either an economic threat or a technology of the future. "They don't realize how far the industry has come in terms of cost-efficiency, which means they don't think of it as a way to create a significant number of well-paying jobs."

Encountering panels where their kids and grandkids go to school, where they shop, bank, and work, sends a different message, says Kennedy. Seeing community leaders actively embracing and promoting solar as a viable energy solution could help rewire opinions, and inspire citizens to do the same.

"Our national energy landscape is rapidly transforming. As that transition takes place, it's critical that we ensure that Appalachian communities are not left behind," Kennedy wrote in a June 2017 op-ed published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Our current economic woes have compelled us to reimagine how families in the coalfields can make a living… Like it or not, we can no longer rely on coal to drive our local economies."

Photos of finished Sigora Solar, Solarize Wise products in SWVA. (Credit: Appalachian Voices)

As development of Ambassador Sites and other Roadmap projects move forward, Wise County Chamber of Commerce vice president Cory Dotson says a shift to solar would invariably create jobs. The Roadmap would generate more than 43 steady full-time jobs, and the installation of solar power plants would create another 212 new jobs annually for the next 10 years. And these would be good jobs: Earnings would total around $17.4 million, or around $68,000 per year per worker.

To meet demand, Dotson says workers will have to be trained.

Toward that end, another Workgroup partner, Sigora Solar — the state's largest solar installation company — is working with Mountain Empire Community College to develop solar-oriented career training, as well as a certification program at UVa-Wise. According to CEO Logan Landry, the company is actively expanding into the area and anticipates an unprecedented rise in demand.

Additionally, Israel's largest renewable energy company, Energix Renewable Energies, hopes to position its East Coast center of operations in Wise. In 2017, the company signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding to build a 20-megawatt solar facility in the county.

All this has some former miners excited. Rusty Justice, 59, lives in neighboring Pikeville, Kentucky—home to what was once the U.S.'s highest producing coal mine—and worked in the coal industry from the age of 16 until he was laid off in 2012. In 2014, he helped found the software company BitSource. Named one of Fast Company's 2017 Most Creative People in Business, Justice retrained 12 former coal miners, and put them to work as computer programmers.

An admitted advocate for coal, he says any industry seeking to bring jobs to the Appalachian coal regions is welcome. Including solar.

"This could put miners back to work and shine a spotlight on some of the highest technically trained workers in the world, which would give the public the opportunity to view us from an alternative framework," explains Justice. "There's a perception of miners as bumpkins still living in the 19th century, and that's simply not true. We operated highly sophisticated machinery, worked with cutting-edge software, and pulled off feats of engineering on a daily-basis. If the work is there, we can easily transition to solar."

Eric J. Wallace is a Virginia-based freelance lifestyle, outdoors, food and adventure/travel writer, and independent media producer. His work has appeared in more than 40 print and digital magazines, including Backpacker, Canoe & Kayak, Adventure Kayak, Modern Farmer, All About Beer, and Atlas Obscura.