We are residents of Letcher County, in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields. Some of us have worked as coal miners and operators; for others, they are our family and friends. Some of us were born and raised here; all of us have chosen to make it our home.
Many of our loved ones have been forced to leave the area in search of work. We who remain are working together to survive this crisis and preserve our communities, however we can. We have built community centers, where our neighbors can work and gather, keep our traditions alive, and incubate new enterprises. We have built volunteer fire departments, our first and sometimes only resource to keep our homes safe and our neighbors cared for. We have started new, locally-owned businesses in food production, natural resource stewardship and digital technology, with many more under way.
All of these efforts are currently under threat from rising energy costs. As rates increase, and incentives for energy efficiency get rolled back, our homes and community organizations find it harder and harder to survive. The solution, from our perspective, is clear. Just as we’ve started to build an economy of our own, so must we start producing our own energy. We have spent the last year planning solar energy projects, and are preparing for our first installations later this year.
Folks in Letcher County are excited about the possibilities of solar energy. In an area starved for job opportunities, solar is a way to promote the growth of small business and put some of our unemployed neighbors back to work. The big energy companies see solar as a growth industry — they are planning huge investments as we speak — and we do, too. Our current laws create a level playing field that lets small communities like ours take advantage of this opportunity, by requiring energy providers to buy energy we produce (which they will then sell to other customers) at the same rates we pay.
House Bill 227, if passed, would change all that. It would tilt the playing field and make it impossible for ordinary citizens and small businesses to reap the benefits of this growth industry. Without a chance to produce solar power and sell it at a fair price, many of our most important community institutions could be forced to close their doors.
We have been dismayed to watch the discussion of HB 227 devolve into the same old culture war: urban vs. rural, solar vs. coal, left vs. right. That does not represent what’s happening in Letcher County. Yes, many of us long for the coal industry to come back. But we also know that coal and solar can exist side by side.
A healthy solar industry will help us pay our bills, grow our economy, and protect our communities. It will benefit communities across Kentucky, both rural and urban.
Nell Fields, Ben Fink, Seth Long, Bill Meade and Debi Sexton live in Letcher County.
This article was originally published in the Lexington Herald Leader.