It is no longer a matter of if renewable energy will grow in West Virginia—but how we West Virginians choose to use our talents and skills to continue powering America throughout the next century. As a millennial born, raised, and returned to West Virginia, I think it’s important to share my generation’s view of the situation.
Last year, roughly two-thirds of new U.S. electricity generation came from renewable energy sources. The year before, just over half came from renewables—a clear sign the electricity market is diversifying. The data shows that the market has decided that renewable energy is the right direction.
Renewable energy is growing for a simple reason: people want more of it. The price of renewable energy has dropped to the point where it is cheaper than other sources. And it’s growing exponentially. The total amount of solar installed nationwide is now doubling every two years. Annual installations in 2015 were more than 20 times higher than 2008.
In the last four years, the cost of installing solar panels has dropped 40 percent—99 percent since the late ‘70s. Wind continues to decline in price as well—60 percent in the last five years. Once the systems are installed, we know exactly what the price of the fuel will be forever: zero. Compared to the volatility of monopoly utility prices, a fixed price of zero sounds pretty good to most businesses, non-profits, and homeowners.
It’s always sunny somewhere, the wind is always blowing somewhere else. By connecting renewable energy to the grid, we even out the peaks and valleys. Our electric grid is getting smarter daily. With the price of storage falling, and the ability to turn appliances on and off on a second’s notice, we can closely match supply with demand.
The jobs have followed the prices. Nationwide, more than 200,000 Americans work in solar (including me)—including engineers, designers, electricians, and installers. Another 75,000 work in wind. The coal industry and coal power plants, meanwhile, are at 140,000.
Solar is being installed faster and faster across West Virginia. We see it in the co-ops that have sprung up to allow homeowners to go solar, together. We see it with the businesses that are taking control of their future. And yes, we even see it on churches, libraries, and affordable housing organizations that my company, Solar Holler, works with. Things have been taking off so quickly, that Solar Holler recently launched a solar job-training program in Wayne County with the non-profit Coalfield Development Corporation—to prepare young folks from coalfield communities for careers in the industry.
Renewable energy isn’t just important nationally; it’s critical to the future of our state. Since the 1950s, the coalfields have seen our young people leaving; the mechanization of our mines requires fewer and fewer workers. As a result, West Virginia is the only state in the nation to have lost population in the last half century.
It doesn’t have to be that way. West Virginia has always been an energy state—even before coal, there was charcoal. Our people have given sweat, blood, tears, and lives to help build and power America. Reimagining ourselves not as a coal state, but as an energy state—including solar and wind—is critical if we are going to continue powering America. We should be exporting renewable energy; we should be firing up shuttered mills to make solar racking and wind turbines; we should be fanning out to every hill and hollow to build a twenty-first century energy system—with West Virginia Millennials leading the way.
— Dan is the founder of Shepherdstown-based Solar Holler.