Elijah and Guylaine Collett, a married couple living on a little over seven thousand dollars a year, have installed fifty-two solar panels on the hillside behind their mobile home in rural Kentucky. The Colletts live three miles up a twisting, heavily shaded hollow in Leslie County, not far from where Elijah was born. It may seem unusual that a family living so far below the poverty line in a region that defines itself by coal has been at the forefront of green energy, but almost every aspect of the Colletts’ lives has defied expectation.
In 1999, after a hard day of working as a freelance electrician, Elijah Collett turned on his computer. His son was teaching him how to use the Internet, but aside from a few religious websites, Collett didn’t have much interest in it. That evening, however, he decided to try his hand at online pool.
Whatever his skill at billiards, he was unprepared for the unofficial Internet pastime of anonymous mudslinging.
“The people on there, my God,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “They was calling me every name under the sun.” When another user with an anonymous handle challenged him to a game, he didn’t respond, but took refuge in another chat room. That user followed him, reissued the challenge, and again, Elijah slipped away. Finally, nine rooms later, Elijah found himself cornered and issued an ultimatum.
“I’ll play you,” he said. “But you got to promise to not call me no names.”
They played the game and became friends. Three months later, Elijah was stunned to find out his friend was a woman. She lived north of Ottawa, in northern Canada, and soon she was walking a mile to the nearest phone booth, depositing ten dollars of quarters in the machine so she could talk to Elijah.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, talking about the similarities between his childhood in rural Kentucky and hers in the French Canadian province. “We lived the exact same life.”
Finally, the new friend and her daughter flew to Richmond, Virginia, to meet him and his son, and today Elijah and Guylaine are married. “What are the chances?” he asks. “That’s got to be one in a million easy…I’ve got to believe the creator had His hand in that.”
While their meeting may have been arranged by providence, their life has at times been less than blessed. Years of working on his own as an electrician finally took its toll on Elijah Collett’s body. His osteoporosis hadn't been diagnosed. “My back been broke twice from lifting heavy weights,” Collett says.
“I worked at a lot of things, burning the candle at both ends, walking like a zombie," he says. "I knew the harder times was coming.”
When they came, they took the strength in his back and the better part of his eyesight. As he talks about his physical limitations and the woman who saved him from them, his pale blue eyes tear up. He nods to his wife.
“The doctor said without her, I’d be a dead man right now,” says Collett, shaking his head in wonder. “A woman can do everything a man can do.”
Because he could no longer work, the Colletts were forced to live on Elijah’s disability check of six hundred dollars a month. They pride themselves on living simply, but soon they couldn’t pay the electric bill.
“It would be 500, 600 a month,” Guylaine says, puffing on a Pall Mall. “Almost everything we take in.” That’s when they decided to install solar panels for their mobile home.
“It was a necessity, it was a necessity, it was a necessity,” Elijah says again and again. To raise money to buy the solar panels, Guylaine sold ginseng and fresh strawberries and collected cans on the side of the road.
“We’d go for a ride and I’d bring four or five garbage bags,” Guylaine says. “The car was smelling horrible because some of the cans were used as tobacco spit cups.” But they could collect 80 cents a pound for the cans, 10 dollars a gallon on strawberries, and they sold the ginseng at a flea market in Hazard.
Soon they had enough money to buy the solar panels and free themselves from the onerous electric bill. “It’s already paid for itself,” Elijah said. “And we absolutely couldn’t get by without them.”
Elijah Collet’s family didn’t have electricity until the mid-1960s when he was five. “I asked my dad where it came from, and he couldn’t answer. He called it 'juice.'” The family had gotten along fine without electricity or virtually any appliance — when Elijah was born, his father rode his mother to the hospital on a horse for the delivery — but they grew to love the radio.
Young Elijah was intrigued with technology, though, and a lifelong fascination with electricity began. He’d experiment on his own. “I soon learned what to touch and what not to touch because it will light you up,” he says. His talent for math furthered his new interest. “Electronics and electricity is all mathematics, every bit of it is,” Collett says. By the time he entered high school, he already was proficient in algebra.
Now he’s used his expertise in electricity to save money and to help the environment, and he “wants everyone to know that it works.” Still, Collett is quick to say, “I’m not against coal. I want to get that on record.” He opposes mountaintop removal because of “what it does to the water” but he stresses, “Let’s not give up on coal—we should do [coal] too—but solar also works, and it’s a way to save money.”
Today, the Colletts are off the power grid except for the stove, the water pump, and water heater. For home-heating, the Colletts use kerosene when it gets too cold for the heat pump. If the power goes off completely, Elijah says, "I use kerosene but I can't cook with that so I have to use the batteries from the solar power."
While economic necessity may have motivated the Colletts to put the solar panels, they also were inspired by their Biblical values to preserve the land. Asked how his spiritual principles inform his decisions about energy, Collett calls for his well-thumbed and dog-eared Bible and the magnifying glass. Then he reads from the Book of Revelation:
And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.
“He’s going to destroy those who destroy the earth,” Guylaine says. “When Christ returns you have to stand in front of him and explain why you destroyed His earth.”
“I take that very seriously,” says Elijah. “I live by the scripture, I treat people well, and reject violence. Money is not going to buy you everything. Things aren’t going to buy you happiness. The measure of a man is who he is.”
Recently the Colletts built an “Electricity Room” onto the trailer to house their fifty-two batteries. On the walls, Guylaine has written messages in magic-marker to “Eljah”, her nickname for her husband. “Je T-Aime, Eljah. Tu est toute ma vie.” [“I love you, Eljah. You are my life.”]
Collett laments the fact that most solar panels are made in China when they could just as easily be made in Kentucky. “That would bring new jobs and cut back on our bills," he says. He imagines "all the buildings in Hyden" with solar panels on them. "Once they’re on, you’ve got them for twenty-five years," he says.
The solar project cost them about $3000. "Now it could cost 6 or $7,000 total," he says. "But I didn't do it all at one time." The Colletts began with four solar panels and "built it up over time." When they put their system in there were no federal rebates for the outlay.
“People are surprised you can do solar in the mountains,” Elijah observes. “Anybody can come here and see that it works," as it will anyplace that receives "five or six hours of sun." And unlike other forms of power, solar is "limitless," he says. "All you need is five or six hours of sun….Long as the sun keeps shining, you’ve got energy.”
Willie Davis is a writer and teacher from Whitesburg, Kentucky, whose work been featured in The Guardian, The Kenyon Review and on WMMT, where the Colletts' story recently aired.