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Coming Soon to This Coal County: Solar, in a Big Way

MARTIN COUNTY, Ky. — For a mountain that’s had its top blown off, the old Martiki coal mine is looking especially winsome these days. With its vast stretches of emerald grass dotted with hay bales and ringed with blue-tinged peaks, and the wild horses and cattle that roam there, it looks less like a shuttered strip mine and more like an ad for organic milk.

The mountain is poised for another transformation. Hundreds of acres are set to be blanketed with solar panels in the coming year, installed by locals, many of them former miners. The $231 million project, which recently cleared its last regulatory hurdle, may well be the biggest utility-scale coal to solar project in the country.

It would be a desperately needed economic boost drenched in symbolism: Renewable energy generated from a shuttered mine in the heart of Appalachia, where poverty grinds on in the aftermath of the coal industry’s demise.

In many ways, the project is a test case for whether a region once completely dependent on digging fossil fuels from the ground can be revived by creating clean energy from the sun. As coal continues to decline — the number of jobs nationwide fell to about 40,000 last year from 175,000 in the mid 1980s — supporting former coal communities is seen as vital for what has been termed a “just transition,” in part to ward off backlash against attempts to decarbonize.

Yet even as coal miners elsewhere resist the prospect of work in solar and wind production, Martin County’s bleak economic picture — its unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average — has opened many residents to investment of pretty much any sort. Coal mining has already flatlined here; by last count the county had just 26 miners left, down from a peak of thousands.

“The global warming thing, I think a lot of that is overplayed,” said James Mollette, a 65-year-old former miner, as he whiled away part of a recent afternoon inside Miss Ida’s Tea Room in downtown Inez, the county seat. But Mr. Mollette said he was all for a new solar farm, even if it offered largely temporary work. “Anything we can get will be a plus to the economy,” he said.

Martin County is in the eastern part of the state sandwiched between West Virginia and Johnson County, Ky., home to the world famous coal miner’s daughters, the singers Loretta Lynn, and her sister, Crystal Gayle. (A $5 ticket buys entry into the ramshackle cabin in Butcher Holler where they and their six siblings grew up.) In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson flew to Martin County to tout his war on poverty, posing before cameras on the porch of an unemployed saw mill operator and father of eight.

A billboard advertising mining jobs in Inez, Ky. By last count, the county had just 26 miners left.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Shuttered businesses in downtown Inez.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Nearly six decades later, suffering continues.About one third of the dwindling population lives in poverty, battered by the sharp drop in coal production as well as the environmental damage left in mining’s wake.

Over the past decade, the coal severance tax revenue collected by Martin County based on how much coal is pulled out of the ground has fallen more than 90 percent to $80,000 in the last fiscal year, according to Colby Kirk, the county’s deputy executive judge. As mining work plummeted, people moved elsewhere. Those who stayed face hourslong commutes to manufacturing, retail and service jobs in other counties and states. The region is so job-starved that when a massive indoor tomato farm opened up earlier this year three counties away, some 7,000 applications flooded in for 350 spots.

The area also withstood an enormous coal slurry spill in 2000 when a containment lagoon burst into an abandoned mine below it, sending more than 250 million gallons of toxic coal waste laced with arsenic and mercury into local waterways. The spill, more than 20 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil disaster, oozed into yards and streams for miles, suffocating every frog, fish and snapping turtle in its path and contaminating the county’s drinking water.

Yet part of the legacy of the Martiki mine — flat sprawling spaces, proximity to power transmission lines, not to mention a population hungry for work —- may have paved the way for a more auspicious future.

“Our bet is we can help make this community, and others like it in coal country, relevant to the opportunities in the green energy economy that everyone agrees is coming,” said Adam Edelen, a Kentucky native and former Democratic state auditor who is the local developer for the project. Mr. Edelen said the fact that a promised return of coal had failed to materialize helped his cause. “I would’ve been run out of the coalfields had I tried to do this six to 10 years ago,” he said.

The base of the old Martiki mine.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
A defunct gas station near the mine claimed by kudzu.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

For more than a decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been recommending that renewable energy projects be built on Superfund sites, former landfills and abandoned mines — property less desirable for housing or other uses. Of the roughly 130,000 potential sites it has identified, fewer than 500 have been developed for renewable energy projects, the agency said. Still, there is growing interest among green energy developers. Of the 18 other solar projects planned by Mr. Edelen’s company, Edelen Renewables, one third would be built on former mines.

“It’s a great opportunity to address climate needs in ways that reduce environmental and social impacts, and that’s why we’re looking at this hard,” said Nels Johnson, the North America director of renewable energy for the nonprofit the Nature Conservancy, which itself is in the early stages of helping to develop solar farms atop former mines in eight states, including on its own land in West Virginia. “Renewable energy in those settings can bring new life to these lands.”

Getting to the old Martiki site requires winding through valleys and hollers, past bungalows, shacks, kudzu-choked ditches, rusted-out cars, tiny Baptist churches, roadside burial plots and a community called Pigeon Roost.

Up at the now-flattened summit, the sky yawns big and wide. After shutting down most operations in the 1990s, the mine’s owners oversaw what Mr. Edelen said was an admirable job restoring the land. People have been racing all terrain vehicles on the grounds, and it has become home to a band of horses, many set free by residents who could no longer afford to tend to them. Until recently, a farmer grazed some cattle there, too. Once the solar project gets underway, the animals are expected to move to adjacent land.

As many as 300 workers will be needed to install the panels, which will stretch over about 1,200 acres of fenced land. Mr. Edelen, whose company has trademarked the phrase “social impact solar,” said the jobs will pay an average of $25 to $30 an hour; according to the United Mine Workers of America, union miners in the region average $31.40 an hour.

All but about a dozen of the solar jobs will be temporary, lasting between 12 to 18 months. Mr. Edelen, and developers at Savion, the company that owns the Martin County solar project, have worked with administrators at nearby Big Sandy Community College to create a certificate program so their workers might be hired elsewhere.

“Selfishly, we have other projects in the region, other developers do too, and these skills are going to be transferable,” said Erich Miarka, a director of development of Savion. “There’s going to be a lot of work over the next several years.”

Mr. Edelen, left, and Erich Miarka, a director of development at Savion, the project’s owner, examined a map where the panels will be installed. “There’s going to be a lot of work over the next several years,” said Mr. Miarka.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Nina McCoy, an activist and retired high school teacher, has reservations about the project. “I worry that it’s going to be another extractive industry,” she said.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

With solar now the fastest growing source of new electricity in the United States, developers have been looking to central Appalachia, drawn by its energy infrastructure and position within the country’s biggest electricity marketplace, which makes it easier for developers to sell their energy to the grid.

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A crucial lure for the Martin County project is a sizable regional power substation up on the mountain. The solar farm would generate up to 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 33,000 homes, which can be fed to a substation to be carried via still-robust transmission lines, avoiding what could have amounted to multimillion dollars in upgrades.

Around Martin County, eagerness for new investment is tempered by some trepidation. Nina McCoy, a local activist and retired biology teacher, said she felt the public had been shut out of much of the planning process, and lamented that the energy generated wouldn’t directly help the county, where residents face skyrocketing utility bills. “I worry that it’s going to be another extractive industry,” she said.

There are also competing opinions about how much the community will benefit. Savion has committed to pay Martin County up to $300,000 each year for 30 years in lieu of taxes. (According to Mr. Edelen the project received federal tax credits but hasn’t gotten state or federal investment.) Victor Slone, the county judge-executive, said the amount was “significant,” but Lisa Stayton, publisher of the local paper, the Mountain Citizen, said that considering inflation, it wasn’t that much.

“​​People here, for the most part, are glad to see any kind of business come,” Ms. Stayton wrote in a text message. “That says we are still as desperate as we ever were.”

Down the mountain, in the village of Lovely, interviews with former coal miners on a recent day also yielded differing views.

Two ex-miners who were working at a small liquidation shop said that they were anti-solar, and wanted the coal industry to come back. Asked what they’d have liked to see go atop the old Martiki mine, one suggested a track for drag racing.

The former coal miner Gary Webb, right, with his cousins Darrell Davis and Ernie Dials, in Lovely, Ky. Mr. Webb supports the planned solar farm.  “It’s good for climate change,” he said. “Anything that helps is good.”Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Wild horses roaming the top of the mine. The horses are expected to graze and roam in an adjacent pasture as the solar project proceeds.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

But at a dusty intersection a few hundred feet away, another former miner, Gary Webb, 66, said he was “all for that solar farm.”

Mr. Webb was spending the day tearing a wood porch off a decrepit mobile home, along with his cousins, Ernie Dials, 74, also a retired miner, and Darrell Davis, who is in his sixties. They said they bought the home for $1,500, and planned to rebuild the porch at Mr. Davis’ house.

Mr. Webb said he welcomed almost any sort of development up on the mountain, and that all the coal had been mined out of it anyway.

“Coal mining’s not coming back, and if it’s just 15 to 20 full time jobs, it’s better than nothing, and better than the land sitting there and doing nothing ,” he said, as roosters crowed nearby.

And, Mr. Webb added, he was thinking about his children. Cleaner energy was a benefit for them, he said.

“It’s good for climate change,” Mr. Webb said. “Anything that helps is good.”

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