From the mountain hollows of Appalachia to the vast open plains of Wyoming, the coal industry long offered the promise of a six-figure income without a four-year college degree, transforming sleepy farm towns into thriving commercial centers.
But today, as King Coal is being dethroned — by cheap natural gas, declining demand for electricity, and even green energy — what’s a former miner to do?
Nowhere has that question had more urgency than in Wyoming and West Virginia, two very different states whose economies lean heavily on fuel extraction. With energy prices falling or stagnant, both have lost population and had middling economic growth in recent years. In national rankings of economic vitality, you can find them near the bottom of the pile.
Their fortunes have declined as coal has fallen from providing more than half of the nation’s electricity in 2000 to about one-third last year. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and moved on — leaving idled mines, abandoned homes and shuttered stores downtown.
Now, though, new businesses are emerging. They are as varied as the layers of rock that surround a coal seam, but in a twist, a considerable number involve renewable energy. And past jobs in fossil fuels are proving to make for good training.
In Wyoming, home to the nation’s most productive coal region by far, the American subsidiary of a Chinese maker of wind turbines is putting together a training program for technicians in anticipation of a large power plant it expects to supply. And in West Virginia, a nonprofit outfit called Solar Holler — “Mine the Sun,” reads the tagline on its website — is working with another group, Coalfield Development, to train solar panel installers and seed an entire industry.
Taken together, along with programs aimed at teaching computer coding or beekeeping, they show ways to ease the transition from fossil fuels to a more diverse energy mix — as well as the challenges.
GILLETTE, Wyo. — John Davila, 61, worked for 20 years at Arch Coal’s Black Thunder Mine in Eastern Wyoming, a battered titan from an industry whose importance to the region is easy to see — whether in the sign in the visitors’ center window proclaiming, “Wyoming Coal: Proud to Provide America’s Energy,” or in the brimming train cars that rumble out of the Eagle Butte mine on the outskirts of town.
But in April last year, at a regular crew meeting in the break room, he was among those whose envelope held a termination notice rather than a work assignment. “They called it a ‘work force reduction,’” said Mr. Davila, whose straight, dark ponytail hangs down his back. “Nice way to put it, but it still means you’re out of a job.”
So a summertime Thursday morning found him, along with a couple of dozen other men and women, in a nondescript lecture room at a community college, learning how a different source of energy, wind, might make them proud, too.
The seminar was the last of three that week organized by Goldwind Americas, which is ready to provide as many as 850 giant wind turbines for a power plant planned in the state. The company was looking for candidates, particularly unemployed coal miners like Mr. Davila, to become technicians to maintain and operate the turbines.
The program, which is to teach the basics of wind farm operation, maintenance and safety over two weeks in October, would cost the participants nothing but their time, organizers said. Those who wanted to test their potential would have a chance to climb a 250-foot tower that Saturday at a farm Goldwind owns in Montana. And if they completed the full program, they would have certifications that could open the door with any employer they chose.
“There’s absolutely no catch – you don’t like me, you don’t like Goldwind, that’s O.K.,” David Halligan, the company’s chief executive, told an even larger crowd in Casper the day before. “There’s going to be opportunity across the country.”
It is a message of hope that has been in short supply, especially after the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in the region and the bankruptcies last year of three major producers. But while coal’s prospects have been dying down, wind development is poised to explode in the state, which has some of the world’s strongest and most consistent winds. And while coal mining jobs have fallen to historic lows nationally in recent years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that wind-energy technician will be the fastest-growing occupation, more than doubling over the next seven years.
Though most of the coal jobs lost last year have since returned as companies have emerged from bankruptcy, the insecurity surrounding the industry remains. “It’s been a little scary when you’ve got people all around you getting laid off,” Brandon Sims, 37, an Air Force veteran who works for an explosives company that serves the mines, said outside the lecture room. “You never really know when your day to get the pink slip is.”
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Coal mining was already dead in Crum, a town of less than 200 just this side of the Kentucky border, by the time Ethan Spaulding, 26, graduated from high school, he said. That dashed his hopes of becoming a roof bolter, helping stabilize the ceilings of mine tunnels. “You don’t even have to have a high school diploma to go to the coal industry,” he said, “and you can start making $150,000 a year.” Or perhaps you once could.
Mr. Spaulding was standing near the railroad tracks at the edge of town where trains move coal out of the region, behind a dilapidated brick building that once housed a high-end suit factory. It is becoming a hub for the family of social enterprises that Coalfield Development leads, which include rehabilitating buildings, installing solar panels, and an agriculture program that grows produce and is turning an old mine site into a solar-powered fish farm.
Wanting to stay in Crum, Mr. Spaulding went through the solar program Coalfield runs with Solar Holler, which offers its participants a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship. He is now a crew chief at the training center, overseeing the renovation of a larger classroom inside the building. Though he is optimistic that he can eventually reach his target income in the solar industry, the installation jobs for which the trainees will ultimately qualify generally pay far less — $26 an hour, on average, nationally.
And yet there is keen interest. For David Ward, 40, managing installations at Solar Holler helps repay the student loans he ran up pursuing a degree in counseling — a growth industry in a state reeling from opioid addiction. An electrician, he said he was “interested in the idea of making your own power and the environmental impact.”
The program is the brainchild of Brandon Dennison and Dan Conant, two West Virginians who wanted to help develop a sustainable economy in the state. Mr. Dennison, 31, started Coalfield Development in 2010; it grew out of a volunteer effort to build low-income green housing. Mr. Conant, 32, had worked on political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s first presidential contest. After becoming involved in the solar industry, he concluded that rooftop solar development, with its individual, decentralized nature, could combine the door-to-door approach of political campaigning with a technology to fight climate change.
He completed the first Solar Holler project — putting panels on the Presbyterian church in his hometown, Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River — and, quickly overwhelmed with demand for similar installations, realized the state didn’t have a work force to handle it. So he formed a partnership with Mr. Dennison’s organization to develop one. At Coalfield’s facility here, participants learn how the arrays create electricity and connect to the power system, but they also get practice installing panels on a shed behind the main building. That helps them clear one of the basic industry hurdles: becoming comfortable working on a roof.
A View Most Never See
SHAWMUT, Mont. — If a big worry for would-be solar installers is staying balanced while ferrying heavy glass-sheathed panels around a roof, for potential wind energy technicians it is whether they can climb more than 200 feet in broiling heat or icy cold and emerge into the gusts to fix machinery. Still, the Goldwind technicians say working so high up is one of the job’s best features.
“You get a view that most people will never see,” as Lukas Nelson, 27, a site manager in Ohio, put it in one of the company’s promotional videos. Only a few towers have elevators, and at Goldwind’s power plant here, the access is by a series of 90-degree aluminum ladders and steel mesh platforms, straight to the top.
It was Saturday morning after the three seminars, and Goldwind safety managers had delivered a brief lecture in a trailer that served as the farm office, warning of perils like rattlesnakes in the tall grasses outside and electrocution from throwing switches in the towers.
The organizers separated the crowd of about 20 into two groups. One would take a tour of the wind farm and substation while the other climbed towers whose blades sat idle. After lunch, they would switch.
In front of the trailer, Chancey Coffelt, 33, Goldwind’s regional safety manager, was showing the climbing group how to put on harnesses — a network of heavy metal clips and rings attached to straps that thread over the shoulders, across the chest and around each thigh. They would latch onto a rope pulley system as they climbed each of four ladders and then hook into a bracket as they reached each platform before freeing themselves from the pulley.
Mr. Davila, the 20-year mine veteran, was standing with members of the second group, chatting about Wyoming’s wobbly energy economy and how wind might — and might not — steady it. “A lot of coal miners don’t like wind or solar, but you need them all,” Mr. Davila said. “It’s like a puzzle you have to solve: just think about how many things we plug in.”
Still, many of the men expressed concern over what the jobs would pay, saying the salaries paled in comparison to what they could earn on an oil rig, for instance.
“It’s so easy to get a six-figure job in the oil industry,” Jesse Morgan, a baby-faced 31-year-old city councilman and back-office worker at a drilling services company, had said over beers at a bar in Casper where he was asked to show ID. “You get addicted to that money.”
But it could be worth taking a pay cut to get out from under the stress of constantly planning for the next layoff, and being able to return home at night rather than working 30- to 40-day stints offshore. The oil field never stops, Mr. Morgan said of his time on the rigs. “It’s 24/7 — you miss birthdays, every holiday.”
As with the other men, Mr. Morgan’s work experience made him an attractive candidate for Goldwind. Accustomed to the industrial behemoths of fossil fuel production, he is familiar with the environment, equipment and procedures of working safely while surrounded by danger — like remembering to fasten the chin strap on a hard hat so it won’t slip off and injure a colleague laboring hundreds of feet below.
Chelsae Clemons, 26, a technician at a Goldwind plant in Findlay, Ohio, said the emphasis on safety and training was part of the program’s value. Among the few staff members at the seminars with a bachelor’s degree, she had worked in a lab at a hospital and had little relevant experience when she decided to pursue a career in renewable energy. In Gillette, she told the crowd, “They’re giving certifications I had to pay for.”
HINTON, W.Va. — “Solar’s not going to be everything, and one of the big challenges for the state is how do we diversify and get lots of cool stuff going,” Mr. Conant, the Solar Holler founder, was saying as he drove from a solar installation at a hilltop farmhouse toward a 1940s summer camp that the local coal company provided for the children of its employees until 1984. “When you’ve been a one-industry town for a really long time, that’s an issue. The last thing we would want to do is pin our hopes on doing that again, just with some other technology.”
After winding down a road canopied by emerald-green trees, he passed the opening of the Great Bend Tunnel, during whose construction in the 1870s, as one legend tells it, the African-American folk hero John Henry beat a steam drill in opening a hole in the rock, only to die from his efforts. Minutes later, Mr. Conant came to Camp Lightfoot, which a nonprofit organization, Appalachian Headwaters, is turning into an apiary with an eye toward helping displaced coal workers and military veterans get into the honey business. Early next year, Mr. Conant plans to install solar panels on an old gymnasium, which now holds racks of wood frames for the hives.
Deborah Delaney, an assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology who oversees the apiary and bee program at the University of Delaware, said the area was well suited for a honey enterprise. It is largely forest, unsullied by the pesticides that threaten the insects in industrial farm areas, and it has plant species like black locust and sourwood whose honey can fetch a high price.
“This is bee paradise,” she said, sitting on the porch of the cafeteria building where a Patriot Coal banner hung askew on one wall. For now, Ms. Delaney and the program’s staff are getting the colony established on a hillside in 86 hives that buzz away behind electrified wire fencing to protect them from bears. Next spring, they plan to distribute about 150 hives to 35 beekeepers either free or through a low- or no-interest loan. Come harvest time, the beekeepers would bring their honey-laden frames to the camp for extraction and processing; organizers would pay them for their yield and then sell the honey to support the program.
“For some people it might be a side hustle, but for other people it could really turn into, over time, a true income that could sustain a family,” said Kate Asquith, program director at Appalachian Headwaters.
Economists say this kind of diversification is important, especially in a region where coal is unlikely to make a major comeback, even if Trump administration policies are able to foster a revival elsewhere. Demand is strongest for the low-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin straddling Wyoming and Montana, rather than what Appalachia produces. The new-energy industries cannot replicate what coal once did, economists say. Long-term jobs at the Wyoming wind farm would number in the hundreds at best, while the solar program thus far trains only 10 workers each year.
Even a coal boom wouldn’t create jobs the way it used to: like the steam drill that ultimately took John Henry’s place, new equipment and technologies have replaced workers in heavy industries. Production of coal, for instance, increased over all from the 1920s until 2010, while the number of jobs dropped to 110,000 from 870,000.
So interest in the bees has been high here. “Thought it was weird at first — bugs in a box in the backyard,” said Sean Phelps, 27, who left a secure job as a school janitor to work with the bee program. Exposure to his father-in-law’s hives changed his perspective. Now he sees them as a way to help the area, as well as fun. “This is what I want to do,” he said. “Whenever you’re out in them, it reduces a lot of stress.”
Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times
Interrupted by a Storm
SHAWMUT, Mont. — It was after lunch, and Mr. Davila and Mr. Morgan were at the base of one of the wind towers, wearing heavy harnesses and waiting for the first group to finish so they could start the climb. Suddenly, Jason Willbanks, 39, who lost a job as an electrician with a coal company and now drives crews to and from their shifts on coal trains, emerged from within. Walking heavily into the blazing sunlight, he clattered onto the metal platform and stairs. Asked how he was, he shot back: “Sweating like a fat guy at an all-day dance.”
As he pulled off the harness, dropped to his knees in a patch of shade on the grass and rolled onto his back, Mr. Davila offered him a bottle of water from a cooler. “You’ve earned it,” he said.
Not long after, word came from the Goldwind crew: A thunderstorm was heading toward the farm, so the second group could not climb.
“I feel like I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go,” Mr. Davila said, disappointed, gesturing toward the harness. “ I wanted to see if I could get up.”
“You’ve just witnessed what it’s like to be a wind-turbine technician,” Mr. Coffelt, the safety manager, said, cocking an ear over one shoulder and suggesting that the group move away from the rattlesnake he had heard. “Imagine if you’re one or two stacks up when you get that alert: right back down we come.” After weighing options, the Goldwind organizers called it a day, offering repeated apologies and promises to get the men back to the site which, over the following months, they did.
Mr. Morgan, who posted a beaming selfie from atop the turbine on Facebook, did not apply for the training program. But Mr. Davila did, and was accepted.
He is torn over whether to enroll, he said. He is desperate for the work but hesitant to leave his wife and home in Gillette, where he has lived since he was 6, for one of the jobs immediately available outside the state. Still, he added with a chuckle, it might be good to move: “Maybe there’s more to the world than Gillette.”