Kentucky explores alternatives to coal

Route 2014

Kentucky is trying to find ways to shift to a cheaper and a more energy efficient way of producing electricity. It’s the same problem developing countries around the world face: How to transition from coal to renewable forms of energy like solar and wind. CCTV’s Jessica Stone reported this story from Louisa, Kentucky.

Eastern Kentucky’s economic lifeblood centers on coal mining. For that reason, it can be tough to convince people there’s a better way. Times are tough in that part of the state where the area is shedding coal jobs by the thousands. Some say the time is ripe for change.

Joshua Bills, an energy efficiency expert at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, is working to help lower people’s electric bills in the heart of coal country. The Association also helps to replace lost coal jobs with new jobs.

A program by a local power company lets customers lease solar panels, allowing them to use the sun to reduce their electricity bills without upfront costs of buying panels. The program, which allows customers to diversify their energy sources, was wildly popular when it launched two years ago, he said.

Diversification is key in Kentucky, as most homes are powered by coal and the cost of electricity has increased 40 percent in five years, said Justin Maxson, the president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

Maxson has called on the state to invest in energy efficiency, forestry, small business, and local foods sectors to create employment opportunities.
“I don’t think we have a no coal future. I think we have a low coal future. It makes sense because it saves dollars for the homeowners, creates job opportunities for contractors, reduces coal to burn,” he said.

While the coal sector employs less than one percent of all the people who live in the state, the industry’s political influence is huge. Some believe that one way to secure Kentucky’s economic future is to embrace political change.

Reformers like Maxson say the influence of coal stifling progress toward embracing alternative energy resources. He said it will take a long time and more creative incentives to replace mining jobs.

Laid-off coal miners, Allen Black and Allen Gibson doubt the renewable energy industry can replace mining jobs which can pay more than $100,000 a year.

“For renewables to be economically feasible, for them to be able to survive without government subsidies, which is all that’s keeping them alive now, we’re still 15-20 years away from that,” Black said.

Black and Gibson favor technological advances to reduce power plant carbon emissions so the state can keep burning coal. But with an abundance of natural gas throughout the U.S., change is in the air.