Boone County claims to be the birthplace of America’s coal industry, the rich and abundant black rock discovered in these verdant hills almost three centuries ago.
THE WASHINGTON POST — Coal gives name to nearly everything in these parts — the Big and Little Coal rivers, the weekly Coal Valley News, the wondrous Bituminous Coal Heritage Foundation Museum and the West Virginia Coal Festival, celebrating, as we arrive in town, its 24th year.
The festival is more state fair than true celebration of coal. There’s a carnival, a talent competition, seven beauty queens (from Little Miss Coal Festival to Forever West Virginia Coal Queen).
Late in the afternoon of the second day, high on a hill graced with the statue of a miner, there’s a small memorial service for the West Virginia men who died on the job over the previous year. The most recent was 32-year-old Rodney Osborne, pinned by mining equipment on June 14. The total deaths are five, fewer than the number of Miss Coal Festivals who wilt in the heat on the steps of the neoclassical courthouse, draped in charcoal-black sashes. No coal executives bother to show up, nor any reps from the once-robust union.
Coal mining, celebrated with rhinestones and pageantry, is an enduring legacy rather than a thriving enterprise. Which is coal country’s problem, and the challenge for its boosters. We’re stuck on the idea of coal, its potent history and Walker Evans imagery, although much of the world has moved on.
But not Boone County. Not yet.
“We’re keeping our heritage alive. We don’t want it to be a dying industry,” says Delores W. Cook, titularly the festival’s vice president/treasurer/assistant director but in fact its true sovereign. “This has been a way of life for people in West Virginia, keeping the lights on for all of the United States, for many, many years.”
Cook adjusts her meringue of hair. She’s a coal miner’s daughter, a distinction residents declare in introductions, akin to being the child of a veteran with a proud chest of medals.
Her late husband, Dennis “De” Cook — every miner seems to sport a diminutive — worked coal “42 and a half years,” she says, making sure every last month is honored. De’s hard hat, plastered with union and company stickers, adorns a cross at the courthouse event, removed from its customary place atop a museum mannequin.
Boone’s fortunes rose and subsequently plummeted along with the industry. But coal’s grip holds hard, a source of revenue that the state has been slow to replace. Fewer than 700 county residents worked the mines last year. The school district is Boone’s largest employer, but it was forced to lay off 150 workers when income from the severance tax on coal extraction last year dropped to a fifth of what it was less than a decade ago.
Decades past its heyday, and despite the availability of cleaner and more widely used energy resources, coal is enjoying its moment in politics, culture and the environmental debate. It has assumed a prominence in our national conversation far greater than its current consumption: 15 percent of America’s energy resources, producing about a third of all electricity. It’s as though we had revived a discussion about locomotives. Fracking, recently a constant in the news, has been relegated to the back burner. Oil, too.
Coal dominated the energy debate during the presidential campaign, embraced by Donald Trump and dismissed as obsolete by Hillary Clinton.
“We’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels,” said the Democratic candidate, promptly rendering her a pariah here.
Coal is an idea some Americans can’t quit, although it employed fewer than 66,000 miners in 2015. The Kohl’s department store chain has more than twice as many workers.
But retail doesn’t play as powerfully in the American imagination, launching stories, inspiring music, forging identity. “Entire communities were formed to mine” coal, says Barbara Freese, author of “Coal: A Human History.” “Coal created its own geographical area and culture.”
The mountainous sweep of Appalachia seized the spotlight, mined for gold by journalists who had miscalculated Trump’s ascendancy and the region’s pivotal role in his election. J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” viewed as a decoder of Appalachian culture, has spent nearly a year crowning the bestseller list.
“I happen to love the coal miners,” declared President Trump in June, announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Trump has welcomed coal miners and executives to the White House for a photo op, the first in ages, and declared “an end to the war on coal” — a term minted by an industry association — at a time when even the Kentucky Coal Museum is switching to solar energy.
Southern West Virginia is a place of both startling beauty and hardship, a juxtaposition that became all the more pronounced when companies started blowing off mountaintops to harvest fuel using fewer men, wrecking the state’s grand scenery in the quest for coal.
“We’re learning we can’t have all our eggs in one basket. We need to grow and diversify,” says state Sen. Ron Stollings (D) at the festival opening, reading from Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III’s address.
But in this region, coal is a tradition that continues to haunt.
“It’s not only an industry that’s lost, but a way of life, one filled with terrible hardships,” says composer Julia Wolfe, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, “Anthracite Fields,” commemorates Pennsylvania’s miners. “The trick is not to romanticize the life. There are very beautiful things about the community’s dependence on each other, but there’s also terrible abuse and negligence.”
The industry was long marked by excessive volatility: all in during boom times — then neglect, with companies decamping under the cloak of bankruptcy, threatening pensions, wrecking the security of proud men. Jobs evaporated. But the mountains remained.
“There’s still a lot of coal in these hills,” says Cook, a former state representative and the steward of perpetual optimism. The fuel never dried up, only its viability, which profoundly affected the community.
The companies often cared less about the men than the commodity, a story the museum subtly reveals through its artifacts, without rancor or editorializing.
Miners were required to purchase work tools from company stores. Security was an afterthought. “We didn’t have reflective gear when I worked in the mines,” says former miner (fourth-generation) Tim Spratt, visiting the museum with his grandson, gesturing toward a vitrine. “That was only for supervisors.”
Spratt, who sang at the memorial service, once worked “low coal” in a hole less than three feet high. “Which is a hard job for a fat man,” he says.
“I liked the camaraderie with my fellow miners,” adds resident Rickey Woodrum, who spent a decade underground before he turned to operating auto-body shops. “I liked the money. It was tough. It will make you tough. But it put your kids through college.”
So they wouldn’t ever have to work the mines.
Mining is, was, the rare job where a man — invariably, a man — could provide for his family, making $80,000 or $90,000 in a good year, with just a high school degree, often less, rising up by working below.
The industry’s declining fortunes contributed to the death of opportunity for many men to be their families’ top wage-earner, another conversation of our times.
“Coal’s been going downhill since World War II,” says former miner Jim Chaney. “In Boone County, it used to be you mined the coal or you moved the coal.”
Now, he believes, “it will come back, but never the way that it was.” It’s a coda you hear constantly in coal country.
West Virginia, seceding from Confederate Virginia in 1863, is the only state created by the Civil War. (Yet plenty of Confederate flags are on display, including several affixed to a carnival stand.) Instead of battlefields, the state produced a landscape of mining conflicts and disasters: Matewan, the Battle of Blair Mountain (the town is now little more than a commemorative plaque), Upper Big Branch.
The industry’s dirty, dramatic and violent history was dominated by outsize union leaders and predatory companies that removed the coal and the wealth and left behind towns that resemble Depression-era movie sets and became visual catnip for documentary filmmakers and photographers.
Six decades ago, McDowell was a county of 100,000. Today, it’s a fifth the size, and West Virginia’s poorest county. In 2015, it garnered national attention for all the wrong reasons: as home to the nation’s highest rate of opioid-induced deaths.
Outside Welch, one of McDowell’s many poor towns, Johnny Bishop, 65, his skin tanned oak, is folded inside a white van on an empty road selling apparel, including mining gear with bands of reflective tape.
Bishop labored for 16 years in the mines, two years picking on his knees in holes 28 inches high. On his worst day, he was shocked by 480 volts from a live wire. Fourth-generation in the mines, he returned to work two days later.
“If you’re a miner, your crew is like your brothers in the mines,” he says.
But business got bad. Bishop’s health got worse. Prescribed opioids for the pain, he took them but says he never got hooked, then quit them cold.
Ultimately, he left the holler, worked construction in Virginia, urged his five children not to become fifth-generation, and ultimately moved back to where the living was less taxing.
The coal companies and the nation’s leaders “didn’t pay attention to us,” he says. “We used to have so much here. We got coal. We got natural gas. We got timber. There used to be no poor people in McDowell County.”
Now, that’s almost all McDowell has.
How much for the miner’s shirt? Two dollars. We tip him three.
Wednesday is mariachi night at the Hacienda restaurant, where three employees were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in May for having improper papers. Everyone was thrilled when two of them came back.
While the beauty queens hold court at the festival memorial service, miners coming off their most recent shift choose to relax here with fajitas and beer.
Trains used to pass through Boone County eight times a day, sometimes more. Residents in housing yards from the tracks cursed the constant racket, others the frustration of driving behind a slow coal truck on two-lane roads over the hills.
No more. Those trains and trucks are now like Christmas.
At 7 p.m., as the carnival lights brighten narrow Main Street, a train plows through Madison, scores of cars loaded with peaks of coal.
“Yoo-hoo! Hear that?” gasps Cook. “The coal train!” She almost breaks into a jig.
It's not news that infrastructure in this country is hurting... badly. One of the biggest and potentially most critical prongs of this issue is our power grid — the system of power stations, transformers, and distribution lines that bring electricity to the farthest reaches of inhabited land.
ENERGY & CAPITAL — Built mostly in the post–World War II era, this incredibly complex network is responsible for connecting thousands of power plants to more than 150 million customers through 5 million miles of power lines.
And the price tag matches the size of the grid itself.
According to a report from the International Energy Agency, as much as $2.1 trillion of investment will be needed by the year 2035 just to keep our existing systems online and capable of supporting a demand for power that grows daily.
And the main problem facing it today is age.
Crumbling Infrastructure... Mounting Costs
As cited in a 2013 report from the Department of Energy, power grid outages in the U.S. have risen by 285% since records on blackouts began in 1984 — an increase driven by natural factors such as weather but also stress fatigue and demand overload.
The problem, however, isn't growing linearly as time progresses. Pushed by age-related failure rates as well as constantly increasing demand (expected to grow by 30% over the next 25 years, despite a near universal push for more efficient, "greener" design and construction techniques in new buildings), that $2.1 trillion sum begins to look more and more reasonable as we stretch our outlook out to the 2030s and beyond.
Whether the U.S. will have the public funds, the engineering prowess, or the logistical know-how required to pull off this transition without any catastrophes is questionable — a fact that's been worrying industry analysts for years.
Today, however, there is an entirely new trend emerging in the world of energy generation, and it's threatening the status quo in a way we haven't seen since the advent of centralized power distribution.
And it all has to do with de-centralization.
Making the Grid Dependant on YOU
Announced in 2015, the Tesla Powerwall, on the surface, is nothing more than a big lithium-ion battery, designed to be hung on a garage wall in a typical single-family home.
The idea behind it isn't hard to understand.
Much like a water well on a property can store and supply water to the residence on demand, regardless of whether local water mains are running, the Powerwall was designed to allow homeowners to store energy for usage in the event of a blackout, as well as to time their energy purchases to take advantage of lower prices at non-peak usage hours.
It's a cool feature to give homeowners some freedom and peace of mind. But when coupled with a local power generation system, such as a small wind turbine or solar panels on the roof, the Powerwall suddenly provides the missing puzzle piece for what is essentially a small, private power plant.
With power generation now working in unison with the local power storage, homeowners can produce their own electricity for their own consumption, as well as store and even sell the excess back to the power company through existing power lines.
The benefits are two-fold: The obvious cost savings and even profit potential for homeowners will be the initial carrot for prospective buyers, but, if implemented on a mass scale, it's the second effect that has the potential to disrupt and forever change the power grid as a whole.
With hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of users producing, consuming, and distributing their own power, no longer will the national power grid have to be dependent on a few thousand centralized power stations.
And the benefits only stack up from there, as aging, high-polluting fossil fuel plants that still represent a huge chunk of our collective energy demand will be allowed to transition out of service without causing potentially dangerous power interruptions.
Compared to $2.1 trillion in public spending to overhaul and modernize the cumbersome beast that is currently responsible for running the homes and businesses of those 150 million-plus customers, the crowdsourced solution is elegant, realistic, financially incentivized for the buyers, and, most important of all, sustainable.
Trying to make large buildings energy-neutral, companies are taking advantage of building windows' surface area to harvest solar energy.
A tech startup on a mission to make modern commercial and housing estates energy neutral has outfitted the headquarters of a Dutch bank with the world's first commercial, fully transparent solar-power-generating windows.
The windows have solar cells installed in the edges at a specific angle that allows the incoming solar light to be efficiently transformed into electricity.
"Large commercial estates consume a lot of energy," said Ferdinand Grapperhaus, co-founder and CEO of the startup, called Physee. "If you want to make these buildings energy-neutral, you never have enough roof surface. Therefore, activating the buildings' facades will significantly contribute to making the buildings energy-neutral."
The windows could generate 8 to 10 watts of power, according to Grapperhaus.
"This enables the user to charge a phone per every square meter [11 square feet] two times a day," he told Live Science.
The first installation of Physee's PowerWindows was unveiled in June in Eindhoven, in the south of the Netherlands.
The headquarters of Rabobank, the Netherlands' biggest bank, has been fitted with 323 square feet (30 square m) of the PowerWindows. The bank's employees will be able to plug their smartphones into the windows using USB ports to charge their batteries, according to Physee.
Other buildings in the Netherlands are already lined up to receive the innovative solar technology, which has won Physee a place on the World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneers 2017 list.
At the end of June, the headquarters of the Amsterdam-based charity the Postcode Lottery were fitted with the PowerWindows. After that, Physee will move forward with its first large-scale project: a 19,000-square-foot (1,800 square m) installation in a large, newly built residential complex in Amsterdam, the Bold tower.
"I believe that every new type of glass needs power," Grapperhaus said. "Either for the glass to be tinted electrically or heated or inside windows there are these solar blinds, which are electrical and can go up and down but also more and more you can see video glass."
Grapperhaus said that the cost of the wiring that brings power from the grid to such windows is considerable in large commercial estates, and investing in power-generating windows would, therefore, make commercial sense.
Physee is already working on the next-generation technology that would triple the efficiency of the PowerWindows. The surface of the second generation of PowerWindows will be coated with a special material that transforms incoming visible light into near-infrared light, which is then transported toward the solar cells in the edges of the windows.
"It works similarly to a [glow-in-the-dark star]," Grapperhaus said. "The difference is that the glow star emits the green wavelength, but the coating on our windows emits light in near-infrared wavelength."
The coating is based on the rare-earth metal thulium. Grapperhaus, together with his friend Willem Kesteloo, discovered the ability of thulium to transform a broad spectrum of light into near-infrared light in 2014, during their studies at the Delft University of Technology.
"Over time, our efficiency will improve further due to the development of better solar cells but also because of the economies of scale," Grapperhaus said. "Right now, we are looking for iconic projects all over the world to show that a large glass building can be made energy neutral in an aesthetic way."
Physee was among 30 early stage technology pioneers highlighted for 2017 and selected by the World Economic Forum for their potential to change the world. The list, announced June 14, consisted of firms developing various technologies, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity solutions, and biotechnology.
Physee's presence on the list shows that the world is starting to take climate change seriously, Grapperhaus said.
"Ten years ago, sustainability was something that wasn't taken very seriously — not by venture capitalists, not by many governments and neither by large corporations," Grapperhaus said. "What I have seen over the last three years is that corporations are becoming more and more responsible, governments are becoming more and more supportive, and venture capitalists are becoming more and more interested" in sustainability.
Volvo is going all-electric by 2019.
NBC — The automaker announced Wednesday that all future models will use some form of electric propulsion, whether in hybrid form with a gas engine or all-battery models. The company says it hopes to become the first traditional carmaker to produce no vehicles based solely on internal combustion engines.
Luxury automakers in general have been announcing major electric-vehicle plans in recent months. BMW will reveal an all-electric version of its 3-Series sedan at the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show. Mercedes-Benz is planning a new battery-car brand, Mercedes-EQ; and its parent, Daimler AG, on Wednesday announced plans to invest more than $700 million to build battery cars in China.
Volvo, based in Sweden but owned by a Chinese holding company, had previously announced plans to sell 1 million electrified vehicles by 2025, “and this is how we are going to do it,” said Volvo Cars CEO Hakan Samuelsson.
Volvo's Emphasis: Safety and the Environment
The automaker has long been known for its focus on safety, but it has been putting increasing emphasis on the environment in recent years. Where luxury brands have traditionally relied on powerful V-8 engines for their most powerful and prestigious models, Volvo had already switched to a powertrain line-up with only four-cylinder engines. And with the 2016 launch of its flagship XC90 SUV, its top-line version was powered by the plug-in hybrid T8 “Twin Engine.”
The transition to an all “electrified” line-up will begin with three new mainstream products set to roll out between 2019 and 2021. The complete transformation will likely stretch into the middle of the coming decade. Volvo isn’t saying what share of future products will be conventional hybrids, plug-ins or pure battery offerings, but the carmaker has already found stronger demand for the T8 Twin Engine than it had originally expected.
For the moment, Volvo’s strategy might seem risky, especially in the U.S., where sales of all forms of electrified vehicles slipped last year, in part due to the low cost of gasoline. But industry analysts say several factors are driving the company’s decision.
"We expect that the decision is also largely driven by CO-2 regulations," Evercore ISI analyst Arndt Ellinghorst told investors on Wednesday.
Tough new emissions and mileage mandates are being put in place in most of the world’s key automotive markets. And even though President Donald Trump has ordered the EPA to reconsider Obama-era standards, which mandate a jump to a 54.5 mile-per-gallon target by 2025, a number of automakers have said they won’t back off on their own efficiency efforts even if the rules are rolled back.
Assault on Batteries
Industry analysts also are betting that the declining cost of batteries — along with improved vehicle range — will start to win over consumers. Tesla, for one, expects to boost sales to 500,000 in 2018 with the launch of its new, mainstream-priced Model 3. That would be a roughly 600 percent jump over the company’s 2016 numbers.
A wide range of new players will flesh out the electric-vehicle market, particularly in the premium sector, in the coming years. Along with Tesla, California-based and Chinese-funded Faraday Future hopes to vie for luxury buyers, as does Lucid Motors, LeEco and other start-ups.
Traditional upscale manufacturers, such as Volvo, aren’t content to cede ground to those new entrants. Virtually every luxury brand has so far committed to adding plug-based models, ranging from Audi to Lamborghini and even Porsche and Aston Martin, two brands best known for their high-performance gasoline sports cars.
In addition to its upcoming electric 3-Series, BMW already has the i3 city car and the i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. Daimler is launching its own electrified sub-brand, Mercedes-EQ, which will have at least 10 battery-electric offerings by 2022.
For its part, Volvo will be the first broad luxury brand to announce plans to electrify all its products, however. And it will assist the rest of the brands owned by Chinese parent Zhejian Geely to go electric.
That includes the Chinese-based Geely brand, as well as the new Lynk & Co. which debuted a production version of its 01 SUV model at the Shanghai Motor Show in April. The 01 will offer a full battery-electric version, as well as a plug-in hybrid, and those could be used by Lynk & Co in its bid to enter the U.S. market by 2019.
Going forward, Volvo will produce electrified products in Europe, China and in the new plant it is currently erecting in South Carolina. All told, Volvo itself expects to be selling 1 million electrified vehicles annually by 2025. That would nearly double the 534,332 vehicles the company sold worldwide in 2016 using all of its various engine options.
In January, a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency hinted at the possibility of an "extreme" sea-level rise scenario that would put some American landmarks, towns, and cities underwater during this century.
MSNBC — That scenario is considered unlikely, but possible. If the worst climate change predictions come true, parts of the US will be devastated by flooding and greater exposure to storm surges.
Research and advocacy group Climate Central took the projections laid out in NOAA's report and created a plug-in for Google Earth that shows how catastrophic the damage would be if the flooding happened today. You can install it (directions here) and see anywhere in the US.
We surveyed major US cities to see what they might look like in the year 2100. Here's a snpshot of what New York City might look like:
Lightyear is a company that is promising a solar powered electric car. The car could be charged both by regular home outlets as well as the sun.
Even before electric cars officially take over as the new normal, clean driving just isn’t enough for some. One company is looking to take green personal transportation to unprecedented heights. Lightyear is a next-generation car company from the Netherlands that is making some truly lofty promises. The company is working on bringing the world a vehicle powered not just by electricity, but by energy generated from the sun.
According to the company’s website, “all cars of the world combined drive one light year, every year.” Their mission is to switch from a fossil fuel powered light year of travel to one powered by the sun by 2030.
Lightyear is hoping to sidestep one of the major limitations and anxieties of electric vehicles: range. Mass adoption of electric vehicles could be hindered by a lack of investment in charging infrastructure. The website claims that “only 3% of the world population lives within 100 km of a publicly accessible charging station.”
EVERYTHING THE LIGHT TOUCHES
The vehicle promised will be powered by energy stored in a battery that can be charged both by a standard (3.7 kW) outlet, as well as solar panels in the vehicle’s body.
In a sunny environment like Hawaii, the car could theoretically run for months between charges. Even without the sun, the car could run for a significant range. “Depending on your battery configuration you have between 400 – 800 km of range buffered in the battery,” Lightyear says on their website’s FAQ section.
This technology has yet to be proven, although the company is planning to have ten vehicles produced in 2019. Cost is also a considerable barrier to obtaining one of these future cars. You can reserve one for €19,000 (around $21,700) — a small chunk of the overall €119,000 ($135,800) price tag.
It’s an interesting addition to the EV lineup, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye on the development of this technology as the first prototype gets closer to hitting the road.
Pharrell Williams is making a big statement with his latest song.
MSN — The 44-year-old singer has recorded a track that will not be released for 100 years -- until 2117.
Williams has partnered with LOUIS XIII Cognac on the song, which was created to shine a light on environmental issues. "100 Years" was recorded onto a record made of clay from the chalky soil of the Cognac region, and stored in the cellars of LOUIS XIII in a state-of-the-art safe specially designed by Fichet-Bauche that is only destructible when submerged in water.
According to a press release, LOUIS VIII and Williams hope to motivate the population to take action against global warming, as scientists have projected that a significant portion of the world's land (including Williams' song) will be underwater in the next century.
The singer premiered "100 years" during a private listening party in Shanghai, China, for 100 lucky guests -- the party is the only time the song will be heard until 2117.
"I love the fact that LOUIS XIII thinks a century ahead," Williams said in a statement. "We should all do the same for the planet. We have a common interest in preserving nature for the future. Each bottle is the life achievement of generations of men and women. It's all about legacy and transmission."
I'm your go to solar energy expert here to guide you step-by-step through all of your solar options.
James The Solar Energy Expert