Organizing for Clean Energy in the Appalachia Coalfields

In the history of coal in America, Harlan County, Kentucky is legendary for its coal heritage, especially for the efforts of its people to organize for better living and working conditions. Labor unrest in the 1930s led to the county being referred to as “Bloody Harlan.”  That same passion for progress and tradition of organizing continues today as Harlan County residents work to help their communities transition to a post-coal economy.

Sitting in the valley at the foot of Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak and greatest potential for wind power, Benham and Lynch are adjacent former coal camps. Created as “company towns,” Benham, founded by International Harvester, today has a population of about 500, and Lynch, a historically African-American community created by U.S. Steel, has about 1,000 residents.

Kentucky homes and businesses pay among the lowest electricity rates in the nation, which has led them to be also among the most inefficient. This inefficiency represent an enormous opportunity for energy efficiency savings and related job creation. This is especially pronounced in the coalfields. For example, Benham, a municipal-owned utility, used the 4th-most residential electricity per residential customer of Kentucky’s 59 utilities in 2007.


Carl Shoupe

Carl Shoupe and other members of the Harlan County chapter of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) have been organizing to make a difference. Residents have “been kicked around for a long time by the coal industry,” says Shoupe, a retired, disabled third-generation underground miner, “There is a “culture of coal” in which people have a difficult time imagining something different.” According to these Harlan County residents, this moment is a “critical time” to take action, as the mines “write people off,” triggering growing desperation and anxiety. “We’re tired of talking and ready to get something done,” says Shoupe,.

This combination of need, potential and community interest creates a unique opportunity to establish a local model for energy savings and green job creation in the Appalachian coalfields.

Like their Coal River Mountain Watch and Mingo County JOBS Project counterparts in West Virginia, the Harlan County members of KFTC are combining traditional organizing with community economic development. Benham and Lynch is a model that KFTC  is exploring to create “community energy initiatives.” Each is community-specific but centered on efforts that would improve energy efficiency, produce local renewable energy, and diversify the local economy. KFTC hopes to connect these initiatives with one another so that each community can share and learn from the other’s work.

A major challenge is the influence and perceived economic power that the coal industry has, especially at the local level. The KFTC Harlan Chapter’s work on energy and a clean economy has unearthed issues of accountability, transparency and, fundamentally, about democracy and citizen participation.

Accusations have been lobbed that KFTC is against coal miners and is causing job losses. KFTC member Roy Silver points to the need to understand the “fear tactics” the mining companies employ and to understand what motivates his neighbors”. The organizing consequentially is highly “personal. For Silver, it’s all about getting more people involved in the process, and attendance at these discussions has grown, including the collection of more than 60 energy efficiency pledges by residents.

These efforts have drawn in many partners. The Benham Garden Club, a group of women who for 16 years has pursued community development, historic preservation and political leadership in Benham, won an Energy Star Change the World grant to distribute compact fluorescent light bulbs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has produced two reports around the community; one about models for developing locally owned wind power and a second on viable strategies for local renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. KFTC, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), and the Benham United Methodist Church have hosted discussions on energy efficiency and energy audits along with CFL distribution. Other partnerships are forming to explore the feasibility of a range of renewable energy sources. In addition to wind and small-scale solar energy, potential exists for micro-hydro power utilizing the creek that runs through the towns.

The symbolism of wind turbines in the heart of the coalfields is not lost on the residents of Benham and Lynch. Roy Silver points out, “If there are no mountains, there is no potential for wind.”

The vision of wind turbines on the mountaintops is exciting but the local residents also realize that efficiency is the “low-hanging fruit”. Recently, the Harlan County Community Action Agency sat down with Silver and Shoupe to better understand how low-income weatherization works and how they might use weatherization and job training stimulus funds.According to one of KFTC’s organizers working with the communities, “It’s significant that Community Action is reaching out to and recognizing Carl and Roy as being in touch with something bigger. … That’s the way the work evolves—through relationship building.”