“The initial response to this decline in jobs… was at first a great degree of anger and frustration,” Carley said. But that changed. “A lot of respondents said, ‘Now, we’ve gotten to this point where we’re starting to adapt, and we’re starting to look for new economic opportunities,’” she said, adding, “There’s a lot of grassroots, on-the-ground work to try to develop new solar fields and put them on old, abandoned coal mines.” As workers plant new solar farms on fallow mines, former coal workers are retraining for jobs in clean energy.

“Honestly, I think most of them are really excited,” said one respondent of solar trainees. “You could ask a lot of them, and they’ll say that: ‘Coal is probably not coming back, or if it is, it’s not what it once was, so I’m going to learn as much new and exciting things as I can. I want to get a degree so I’m more hirable later on.’”

Workers install solar panels on a veterinary hospital in Littlestown, PA, 2010.
Workers install solar panels on a veterinary hospital in Littlestown, PA, 2010.
Image: Source: USDA

Clean energy cannot replace all lost mining jobs. While the transition to renewables will likely create more jobs than it eliminates — solar installer and wind turbine technician are the fastest-growing jobs in the country —those jobs will not be concentrated in Appalachia, meaning that if communities in coal country want to survive, they need to look elsewhere for income.

Former coal workers are looking for new opportunities in everything from computer programming to winemaking to tourism. They would rather reinvent the local economy than leave. “This is a place where people have such an extremely strong connection to the ground and to history”, said Carley. “People want to stay there, because that is their heart. That’s where they grew up.”

West Virginia.
West Virginia.
Image: Source: Pixabay

Carley and her colleagues talked to locals in the summer of 2016, before Donald Trump won the presidency on a promise to resurrect coal. To find out if the election had changed attitudes about the future of the industry, researchers conducted a follow-up survey. It confirmed their initial results. “By and large, people reported that, on the ground in their communities, the transition had either stayed the same, or it had picked up,” Carley said. Respondents believe Trump’s policies might slow — but won’t stop — the shift to clean power.

Asked why so many Appalachians supported Trump if they believe coal is beyond rescue, Carley said, “If somebody’s going to tell them that they’ll bring back their jobs, then it makes sense for them to act in their best interest,” adding, “As to whether or not they truly believe that, I do not get the impression that they do.” The people she interviewed regarded Trump and his most ardent supporters with some skepticism.

President Trump’s supporters at a GOP rally in December, 2016.
President Trump’s supporters at a GOP rally in December, 2016.
Image: Source: Tammy Anthony Baker

“They want to elect politicians that are falsely promising them, ‘I’m gonna bring coal back. I’m gonna make West Virginia great again,’” said one respondent. “The coal jobs aren’t coming back. Coal is dead.”

Many respondents welcomed the the death of an industry that has killed and maimed miners, polluted waters, and destroyed landscapes. Carley said the drive for reinvention was coming from a growing number of young people, would-be miners willing to stray from the path so well trod by their fathers and grandfathers.

“I think slowly but surely, you kind of go through all these stages of mourning,” said one respondent. “So, there’s still those that think coal will come back. But there’s — more than ever in my lifetime — many that say it’s not coming back, at least not how it was, and so there is definitely more among the younger than among the older, but there is kind of this excitement and possibility that now coal is gone and we can rebuild our economy into what we want.”

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