Tanner Lee Swiger graduated from high school in Wayne County, West Virginia this spring. His father and grandfather both worked in West Virginia’s coal industry. But not Swiger, or any of his high school classmates.
PRI — Nobody from his graduating class is working in coal, says Swiger. “[They’re] honestly working in fast food, or not working at all.”
Not Swiger. He has a job installing rooftop solar panels. He says his family is delighted with it.
"They’re excited that I’m actually doing something different,” says Swiger. “A lot of people ain’t doing this in West Virginia, a lot of people are against it actually. A lot of people want to go back to coal.
“I ain’t against it, I love solar. It’s way better than coal, I think.
Solar panels can save people money on their electricity bills and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, which fuel climate change. With battery storage, found in some home set-ups, solar can also allow people to continue to power their homes off the grid during power outages.
Swiger is working as an apprentice with Solar Holler, which was founded four years ago by 32-year-old Dan Conant. Conant doesn’t see solar energy and coal at odds with each other.
“The way I think about it, as a West Virginian, is that West Virginia has always been an energy state, and this is just the next step. It’s the next iteration,” says Conant.
West Virginia’s economy has long been reliant on coal. Metallurgical coal, which is found in the state, is used in the steel-making process. But when steel-making largely shifted from the US to overseas in the 1970s and '80s, West Virginia’s coal industry took a big blow.
Then, as the country turned to cleaner, and now cheaper, sources of energy, West Virginia’s coal industry was hollowed out, leaving many, like Conant, thinking beyond coal. He left his job at the US Department of Energy to start Solar Holler, to try to help slow his state’s economic slide. By many metrics, West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country.
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