A plea from the mountains: Don’t snuff out solar energy’s economic opportunities

Whitesburg, Ky. MALCOLM J. WILSON
Whitesburg, Ky. MALCOLM J. WILSON

Despite rising energy rates, loss of coal severance revenues and decades of disinvestment, people in Eastern Kentucky aren’t giving up.

From downtown revitalization and Main Street programs, to innovative mine reclamation projects, community agricultural enterprises and development programs rooted in the region’s rich cultural heritage, residents and community-led groups across the region are working together to make a future in Appalachia that works for all.

Letcher County, where we live, is home to many such efforts. The Hemphill Community Center, in a former coal camp, recently started a wood-fired bakery to supplement its income, provide jobs and bolster its community programming. The Kings Creek Volunteer Fire Department renewed its bluegrass festival and banded together with other fire departments to provide training for those on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic. HOMES Inc., which builds quality energy efficient affordable housing in an area of degraded housing options, is partnering with local tourism and community development organizations to build scenic overlooks and improve the walkability of downtown for residents and visitors alike.

These organizations all have a few things in common. For one, we are all partners in the Letcher County Culture Hub, incubated with support from Appalshop.

This countywide network of grassroots groups is committed to economic development through collaboration, cooperation and cultural celebration. For another, we tremble when the electric bill arrives in the winter months. Energy costs have been rising for years, and Kentucky Power has recently implemented new demand charge rates that place further strain on our cash-strapped community facilities. These increases come at a time when our rural communities face an unusually cold winter, bringing some of our partners to the brink of closing their doors.

But after years of struggle, we may have found part of the solution: solar energy. This year, with assistance from the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), four community-led organizations in Letcher County will go solar: Hemphill, Kings Creek, HOMES and the grassroots multimedia cultural center Appalshop.

Our new solar energy systems will stabilize and reduce our electricity bills over time and help us to be more efficient with the energy we produce and use. Overall, these projects reflect over $500,000 of long-term investment in critical community institutions — the largest renewable energy project in the history of Letcher County.

These projects follow in the footsteps of fellow communities all over Eastern Kentucky exploring and implementing solar installations, from the Kentucky Coal Museum and the Campton Baptist Church to the cities of Lynch, Livingston and Mt. Vernon.

We are ready to make these projects successful, and a model for many more across the region. But to do it, we need the support of our state government.

Last month, Rep. Reggie Meeks introduced House Bill 146, legislation to allow for third party purchase agreements for renewable energy. This policy, standard in many states, makes it easier for groups like ours to finance solar energy projects. It also gives those with less land and sun exposure a chance to support the development of carbon-free energy sources. We applaud this bill.

Senate Bill 100 was introduced in Frankfort this week. Like last year’s HB 227, this bill would would end net-metering, allowing big utilities to credit pennies on the dollar for energy produced by rooftop solar systems, and to sell that energy back to customers at full price. This kind of legislation limits opportunities for Kentucky residents and businesses, and cripples efforts to create new pathways to the future for our rural communities.

Residents of Letcher County are ready to demonstrate that solar is an achievable way to reduce our energy costs, support a growing regional industry, and generate long-term employment opportunities as our economy continues to diversify. We ask that decision-makers in Frankfort support our efforts. Don’t put up new barriers to this hopeful and real opportunity in Eastern Kentucky.

Alex Gibson is executive director of Appalshop Inc. Gwen Johnson represents the Hemphill Community Center. Seth Long is executive director of HOMES Inc. Bill Meade is part of the King’s Creek Volunteer Fire Department. They are all members of the Letcher County Culture Hub.