HUNTINGTON — A 376-solar panel project at Coalfield Development’s West Edge Factory in the Westmoreland area of Huntington is the largest for a nonprofit organization in West Virginia.
“The installation of these 376 panels is the culmination of many years of collaboration between Solar Holler and Coalfield Development,” said Coalfield Development CEO Brandon Dennison. “Our conservation coordinator, Jacob Hannah, worked with Dan Conant and his team at Solar Holler to make this a reality, and our community is better off for it.”
Dennison called it “much more than a simple solar installation project.”
“This was a workforce development, community engagement and green infrastructure project all wrapped into one,” he said.
Hannah said the total cost of the project is $184,000. It will generate 122.2 kilowatts of power with 150,500 kilowatt hours in annual production.
“We had been looking around for funding opportunities to put solar on the building,” Hannah explained. “We had been distributing solar as a solar installer to houses and businesses, but in as a nonprofit we couldn’t afford to put solar on our own building. We reached out to the Alex Honnold, a world-famous rock climber. He is the first person to ever free climb El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world, located Yosemite National Park, in central California’s rugged Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. He sets aside a third of his income to a foundation for installing solar in developing regions. We made the case that Appalachia is a developing region, especially with the coal transition. He loved the project and we received a $100,000 grant.”
Solar Holler recent finished the solar panel installation portion of the project.
“It took them about three or four weeks,” Hannah said. “Now we are waiting on the final interconnections with everything coming down to a meter, which will read the saving being generated. We have been working closing with AEP to make sure our power is going into their grid and it’s being metered correctly.”
Hannah said a ribbon-cutting ceremony is being planned for late August or early September.
“Of all the amazing work that has happened at Coalfield Development these past 11 years, being part of the solar movement has been one of the biggest surprises and also one of the most rewarding parts of our effort,” Dennison said. “In 2014, Dan Conant called me and asked if we wanted to partner on training the new solar workforce of West Virginia’s future. I’m so glad we said yes. That yes led to the creation of what was then called Rewire Appalachia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Coalfield Development.”
Dennison said Rewire provided labor for Solar Holler’s installations for several years.
“Then, in 2019, Solar Holler actually acquired Rewire and Coalfield Development became a minority share owner in the Solar Holler business,” he said. “If you would have told me back when Coalfield started in 2010 that of all the different businesses we started, our solar enterprise would be one of the fastest growing, I would have laughed you off. But Solar Holler keeps pushing the envelope of what’s possible for renewable energy here in West Virginia. We are genuinely honored to be along for the ride and to do our part to mine the sun.”
At the West Edge Factory there is a sticker design painted on one of the inside walls that says, “Solar Keeps the Lights On.”
“One component of the installation was the foundation wanted to do a sticker design to commemorate the project and sell as a fundraiser,” Hannah said.
“It’s a play of the term ‘Coal Keeps the Lights On’ that we usually hear. Well, these are reskilled coal-impacted folks selling solar that are keeping the lights on as well.”
A new report from global wealth management company Morgan Stanley projects coal-fired power generation is likely to disappear from the U.S. power grid by 2033 and will largely be replaced by renewable energy resources.
The report from Morgan Stanley said renewable energy such as solar and wind power will provide about 39 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030 and as much as 55 percent in 2035.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal currently makes up about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation and could rebound to as much as 22 percent this year due to higher prices for natural gas.
Morgan Stanley forecasts, however, that the slight increase will be short-lived and coal will experience a “constant decline thereafter.”
Dennison says coal’s decline is one reason the project is important to the Westmoreland and Wayne County community.
“It carries importance for our entire Appalachian region,” he said. “I’ve heard so many different arguments from so many different skeptics about why solar can’t work in West Virginia. But the reality is it keeps working. The solar sector keeps growing and creating new jobs. A new economy really is possible here, and this project proves that point. And this new economy can be better for our people than the booms and busts of the old economy ever were.”