Crammed into a narrow river valley in the Appalachian Mountains, the city of Pikeville, Kentucky, feels closed off from the rest of the world. It's a sensation that starts miles away from town as I slowly drive a meandering road that climbs through the hills. Rough-cut cliffs of bare rock close in beside me, and a bobcat briefly trots alongside my rental car.
Picturesque and tiny -- its population is just 6,700 -- Pikeville is the county seat of Pike County, Kentucky's easternmost point. Like many places in central Appalachia, it's historically a coal town, where Ross Harris Group, a family coal company that owns roughly 300,000 acres of land in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee, has been a fixture for more than three decades. Coal is still a significant part of its portfolio, but as the industry continues to decline, RH Group has diversified. I'm here to learn about one of its more surprising ventures, a 700-acre solar farm planned for two nearby mountaintops previously used to mine.
Thoughmay seem better suited for the flat deserts of the Southwest, RH Group has decided that moving beyond coal is critical for its survival. Ryan Johns, the company's vice president of business development, credits coal with powering the industrial revolution and making possible many of the machines we use today. He also knows the reality of a finite resource. Made of fossils millions of years old, coal isn't being replaced by more fossils once it's dug out of the ground. Coal mining, particularly strip mining, also can significantly mar the rugged beauty of nearby mountaintops and contaminate waterways with runoff from the work site.
By investing in a renewable energy project, Johns hopes to keep RH Group competitive in today's economy and save jobs in a rural part of the country that most renewable energy companies have ignored. Construction on the solar project has yet to begin, and the company has a fight ahead of it with the state government, but Johns is optimistic it'll succeed. "It's not about renewables versus coal," he says. "This is about doing what is right and taking a resource that has already been used [coal] and repurposing the land to keep creating jobs and keep producing energy for our country."
Johns drives me and my video producer, Tyler Lizenby, up into the hills surrounding Pikeville to the site where the solar farm will eventually be built. We're joined by Adam Edelen, founder of Edelen Ventures, a former Kentucky state auditor and a Kentucky gubernatorial candidate for 2019, and Kenny Stanley, RH Group's land agent. As we climb higher, Johns points out a darker section of rock embedded in a hill bordering the road -- that's coal, he says. We're literally surrounded by coal.
RH Group mines metallurgical and thermal coal here at both underground and mountaintop sites. Metallurgical, or "met" coal, goes into the steel that's in buildings and cars. Thermal coal is used for power generation. We ultimately reach an elevation of 1,600 feet.
It's a chilly, clear November morning with a view of Virginia to the east. Johns hands me a stray piece of coal from the ground, an artifact from an old mining operation that ended 15 years ago. It's lighter than I expected it to be, and more brittle; a piece breaks off easily while I'm holding it. Today the area is full of tall grass, which attracts elk and deer.
Johns points out the areas that will be covered in solar panels. While we talk, a couple of trucks pull up. Johns tells the drivers they're on private land, and they drive off. Not long after, we hear rifle shots in the near distance. Deer hunting season is still a few days away, so they're most likely getting target practice in beforehand.
Johns says the idea for a solar farm came out of a "perfect storm" that devastated the region's coal business. It began around 2010 when a lot of customers switched from coal to gas as natural gas prices dropped.
Then in 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which required older coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions, a byproduct of coal. Jobs disappeared and a lot of coal companies filed for bankruptcy. Many people moved away from Appalachia in search of other work.
According to a report from the state government, coal production in Pike County declined 12.3 percent year over year in the third quarter of 2018 and 80 coal jobs were lost.
Johns knows that the jobs aren't coming back. "So we have to have other alternatives," he says. "We think that's just the smart way."
Before Johns and Edelen came up with the idea of harnessing the sun, they talked about turning the land into shooting ranges or ATV courses. They also considered wind power, but Johns tells me Kentucky is a low-wind state. Plus, windmills can be an eyesore and you have to do a wind study for at least a year to test their viability as a power generator. Edelen finally suggested a solar farm in a moment of desperation.
"What in the world is that?" he remembers Johns asking. "I said, 'Man, I don't know. It's like solar panels or turbines or something.'"
Kentucky's weather doesn't have the reputation of Florida's, but Johns is optimistic that solar power can work anywhere in the state.
Kiran Bhatraju, founder and CEO of Arcadia Power, a company that connects consumers to regional renewable energy programs, says Johns isn't off-base. How many sunny days versus rainy and cloudy days a state gets doesn't impact things as much as you might think. "This is a trope about solar that is sort of ill-defined," he says. "Massachusetts has some of the most solar [power facilities] in America."
Two and a half years after starting the project, Johns and Edelen estimate that they've spent thousands of hours on it. Though they're old college friends, their wives joke that they're life partners. They're planning to start construction this summer and open the farm by 2021.
But there's a final hurdle: finding a place to sell their solar energy. Kentucky law states that you can sell solar power to a utility company, but not directly to a person or a business. Edelen believes the model is outdated and is holding Kentucky back from innovating by not embracing renewable energy initiatives and options for customers. He hopes his project will be a catalyst for change.
"There is an age-defining fight with the utilities that's coming," Edelen says.
American Electric Power subsidiary Kentucky Power, a utility company that serves Pikeville and surrounding areas, is working on its own 20-megawatt solar project. Tammy Ridout, AEP's media relations manager, tells me in an email that it will help meet the growing interest of its customers in renewable energy. By 2030, AEP plans to add additional wind and solar projects totaling over 8,000 megawatts. Johns and Edelen say the difference between the AEP and RH projects is that their company is working toward what they call a "democratization of power production," where people have the choice between being their own utility or paying a utility company for power.
Hatfield and McCoy
We jump back in the truck to visit the second section of the future solar farm. On the way, Johns mentions that the solar engineers from EDF Renewables -- the company helping design the layout of the panels on the hillsides -- named the two different sections of land that will make up the solar farm "Hatfield" and "McCoy."
The Hatfields and the McCoys were two warring families who lived in the same area in the late 1800s, a fact that Pikeville tourism focuses heavily on. A brochure at my hotel advertises a Hatfields and McCoys "Historic Feud Tour." The front cover reads, "Visit actual sites from America's most famous feud!"
Johns and Edelen give me their own version of a tour. We were on Hatfield before; now we're on McCoy, I think. Or maybe it's the other way around. Johns and Stanley don't like the names very much -- Stanley wonders why you'd want to name anything after people who killed each other -- but it's too late. They've stuck.
Where Hatfield was desolate and overgrown with plant life, McCoy, just on the other side of a ridge, is still an active mine that is scheduled to close in April. Someone is dragging a massive tire behind a truck. Another truck is dumping rocks into a pile. It's hard to imagine a solar panel farm existing here in three years, but Johns and Edelen have ambitious plans.
They say the solar project is the first of its kind ever to be built on a mountaintop removal site. It's going to be big -- again, 700 acres -- and include about 500,000 solar panels.
"[The solar farm] will be the largest in Appalachia in an area buffered by the oldest mountain range in the world," Edelen says. "So this is not just a monument to the future but one that's visible from space, and I'm so excited about that."
Here comes the sun
Once built, the solar farm should produce 100 megawatts of power, enough juice for about 18,000 homes. RH Group expects to temporarily employ more than 200 people to help install the solar panels, after which it'll need about 30 to 50 full-time workers to take on security jobs, monitor the flow of the panels and maintain them. Edelen tells me the company will give hiring preference to out-of-work coal miners.
Johns and Edelen are also thinking about the businesses that investing in renewable energy could attract to Kentucky. "Without renewables, your Googles, your Facebooks, they won't come into the area," Johns says. "They just won't do it."
I asked a few people in town, an employee at a hotel and a couple of people working at Pikeville's Kentucky Career Center, about the solar farm the following day. None of them had heard of the project yet. Though Johns and Edelen expected resistance from the coal community, they say that hasn't happened. People in the area want work and keep asking when they can apply for a job.
"We started to call around, and the pitch was, 'Hey, we've got a coal company with unlimited land resources that's willing to partner with a renewable energy firm on a mountaintop removal site to put a bunch of coal miners back to work. Are you interested?'" he says. "Everybody said yes."
They don't plan to stop with this one project, either. They want to expand renewable energy throughout Kentucky. "It is a game changer not just for this area and our region, but it's potentially a game changer for the whole country," Edelen says. "If we can demonstrate that the promise of renewable energy can be realized in the forgotten places of this country, it means that we've driven the revolution home and there's no turning back."
This story appears in the Spring 2019 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.