Tom Eblen

New film about climate change has a surprising hero: An Eastern Kentucky strip mine.

A Pike County project that would put thousands of solar panels on a reclaimed strip mine site is featured in the new climate change film "The Human Element," featuring National Geographic photographer James Balog.
A Pike County project that would put thousands of solar panels on a reclaimed strip mine site is featured in the new climate change film "The Human Element," featuring National Geographic photographer James Balog. Earth Vision Institute

When was the last time a documentary film about human-induced climate change featured a good-news story from Eastern Kentucky coal country? Never. Until now.

“The Human Element,” a new documentary starring National Geographic photographer James Balog, has as its uplifting kicker a segment about a proposed project to put thousands of solar panels on a former Pike County strip mine.

The film, which debuted in April at the San Francisco International Film Festival, will premier in Lexington at the Kentucky Theatre at 6 p.m. on May 31. Admission is free. An RSVP to is appreciated but not required.

Balog is best known for his years of work documenting how climate change is melting glaciers. It was featured in the award-winning 2012 film “Chasing Ice.”

The Colorado-based photographer is founder and president of Earth Vision Institute, which worked with director Matthew Testa and writer Lyman Smith to produce “The Human Element.”

The film explores climate change through segments built around the four basic elements: water, air, fire and Earth. Viewers watch as Balog and his photographs tell the stories of California wildfires, asthma caused by air pollution and rising sea levels that will soon wipe out a fishing village in coastal Virginia.

The final “Earth” segment looks at the Eastern Kentucky solar project, where Berkley Energy is working with former state auditor Adam Edelen’s company, Edelen Strategic Ventures, and other partners.

The effort, which has been covered widely in national media, would be the largest solar farm in Kentucky.

This drone footage shows a reclaimed strip mine in Pike County, Ky., where investors are studying the potential for a large solar panel array. Video provided by Berkeley Energy Group.

“We had a couple of our team in Pikeville looking for stories and that one came up and it was like, wow, this is great,” Balog said in an interview. “This is an uplifting story that shows some promise for the future."

Balog comes from a coal family in Pennsylvania, and he said he wanted to be sensitive to people who work in the industry.

“We wanted something that was not dumping on coal miners,” he said. “I have respect and admiration for these solid, hard-working folk. I had no interest or intention of doing the typical environmental diatribe dumping on the coal industry. I wanted to look at it with an even eye and tell some different kinds of stories.”

Edelen is thrilled with how the film portrays the project.

“It demonstrates to the world, through our project, that there are progressive elements in Kentucky that are working to make our state relevant to a 21st century economy,” he said.

Inside Climate News reported May 18 that the $150 million project is threatened because Kentucky Fuel, controlled by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, is years behind on reclaiming part of the site.

Edelen downplayed the problem as “a minor headache.” The unreclaimed land is only about one-third of the site, he said. “There’s no question that it’s going to happen. It’s a matter of when.”

While the Kentucky segment is solution-oriented, Balog said his goal with most of the film was to help people understand the impact humanity is having on the planet.

“The critical issue is that we humans live in a pivotal moment of natural and human history and most of us don't understand that at all, and those of us who do are continually striving to see it more clearly,” he said.

Polls show a majority of Americans believe human activity is contributing to climate change. While many remain skeptical for ideological or financial reasons, he said, Mother Nature is speaking loud and clear.

“Whether it's California burning or tornadoes in the Midwest or hurricanes on the gulf coast or the Eastern seaboard, these things will keep coming and people will get more and more educated,” Balog said.

“We absolutely know how to take the right steps,” he added. “The question is, do we have the heart and soul and spiritual capacity to care about what we're doing at a level that's higher than our immediate selfish needs and status quo interests? Are we going to leave a better world or a degraded world for the people who come after us, and that’s our children?”