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This is what happens when a wind farm comes to a coal town

Keyser, West Virginia, is going through an energy transition as wind turbines are built around the traditional coal mining area.
Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Keyser, West Virginia, is going through an energy transition as wind turbines are built around the traditional coal mining area.

Sheila Wagoner is not a fan of the wind farm overlooking Keyser, West Virginia.

"I really don't care for those windmills," the 71-year-old says. "I guess I wasn't brought up with that kind of society. Like 50 of 'em together? Who likes all that?"

It's not just the visual contrast that Wagoner finds bothersome. She is from one of many families in Keyser — and throughout West Virginia — that relied on the coal industry for generations. Her late father worked as a railway engineer for coal trains that used to run non-stop through Keyser.

Today, those trains are an increasingly rare sight.

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As Wagoner speaks, one of the few remaining coal trains passes through the town of just under 5,000 people. Watching it rumble by, she gets a little emotional.

"That reminds me of my dad. When I see a train, my dad's there," she says. "Those memories are good memories."

There is a popular perception in West Virginia that renewable energy has been killing the coal industry. However, that narrative is incomplete. Jobs in coal had been in decline decades before the wind turbines came to Keyser in 2012.

Still, the turbines are a clear — and for some, bitter — sign that times have changed. As they slowly spin in the breeze, they stir up mixed feelings.

Pride and politics

Some residents of Keyser say coming home covered in coal dust is something to be proud of. A sign of a hard day's work.

"It's part of that Appalachian Mountain thing. I think people are very proud of who they are and where they're from," says Keyser's Mayor Damon Tillman. "Energy is huge in this town and without it, we wouldn't have much."

Today, the shift from fossil fuels to renewables is accelerating.

Railway tracks that allow trains carrying coal, among other commodities, snake through Keyser.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Railway tracks that allow trains carrying coal, among other commodities, snake through Keyser.

In 2022, the country's first major climate policy, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, passed with the promise to speed up that transition, offering at least $4 billion to boost development of renewable projects like the Pinnacle Wind Farm in Keyser.

That law passed with the key vote of West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, but Tillman is skeptical that those benefits will reach Keyser.

"I like Joe. I talk to him a good bit. But the thing is a city like Keyser [doesn't] ever see any of that money," says Tillman. "That money all goes to bigger cities – Morgantown, Jefferson County, Charleston. So it doesn't do us any good."

Senator Manchin declined NPR's request for an interview on this topic.

Many in Keyser have pride in the coal roots of the town, and the hard work that went with it.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Many in Keyser have pride in the coal roots of the town, and the hard work that went with it.
Some question whether the money flowing for renewable investment will be evenly felt.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Some question whether the money flowing for renewable investment will be evenly felt.

The mayor's sentiments echo what is being felt more broadly across the state, says Hoppy Kercheval. He hosts the daily radio program Talkline on West Virginia MetroNews and has been on the air for nearly 50 years.

If anyone has a read on how people in this state are feeling, it's him.

"Manchin [is seen as] selling out to Biden and his fellow Democrats, and politically that hurt him," says Kercheval.

"But at the same time, there's all this green energy money that's coming to West Virginia and the last two years has seen more economic development announcements than I can remember in this state."

Those "green energy" dollars funneling into a predominantly conservative state with a historic connection to coal have created political dynamics that Kercheval describes as paradoxical.

Wind turbines turn in the background as a flag that reads "Trump 2024" flies in the cold wind in Keyser on February 14.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Wind turbines turn in the background as a flag that reads "Trump 2024" flies in the cold wind in Keyser on February 14.

"So on one hand you have political leaders and community leaders who are more than willing to be at the groundbreaking and the ribbon cutting," Kercheval explains. "But [they also] politically denounce or [are] critical of the Inflation Reduction Act because it was seen as a Biden-Democrat plan in a deeply red state."

Despite the complex politics unfolding in the state and around the nation, Kercheval says that general acceptance is setting in that coal will not surge back to the way it once was.

Mayor Tillman agrees: "It's gone. I mean, the coal industry is about phased out."

Where did the jobs go?

There's a misconception that renewables contributed to the decline in coal. But renewables had little to do with it.

After peaking in the 1920s, jobs in the coal industry have been disappearing.

With factors like automation beginning in the 1980s — and a decades-long shift towards natural gas through the late 2010s -- the coal industry was already a fragment of what it had been by the time the Keyser Wind Farm was completed in 2012.

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The Biden Administration often talks about what it calls a "just transition." It's a new name to an old promise that for people moving out of work in fossil fuels, there will be opportunities to find work in renewables.

One example of that is Doug Vance, site manager of the Pinnacle Wind Farm.

"My whole family worked in coal," Vance says. "I was in the fuel preparation plant, and we prepared coal for fuel-fired power plants, coal-fired power plants, and that's where I worked for quite a number of years."

Doug Vance, middle, holds a staff meeting with technicians in February.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Doug Vance, middle, holds a staff meeting with technicians in February.

Vance now spends his workdays in a homey cabin-turned-office for Clearway Energy, the company that owns the Pinnacle Wind Farm.

However, Vance's jump from coal to wind isn't the reality for the vast majority of people who have lost coal jobs in West Virginia. Renewables like wind and solar are not as hands-on as coal processing, and can't offer up the same number of jobs.

"We have six full-time employees [at the Pinnacle Wind Farm]," Vance says, a number that he acknowledges is small.

So while Vance might represent the country's shift from fossil fuels to renewables, he doesn't represent the workforce. He's the lucky exception who got a job in wind.

Economist Mark Curtis at Wake Forest University in North Carolina has studied this shift in the workforce.

The wind turbines near Pinnacle Wind Farm dot the ridge.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
The wind turbines near Pinnacle Wind Farm dot the ridge.
The Pinnacle Wind Farm has just over a handful of full-time staff.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
The Pinnacle Wind Farm has just over a handful of full-time staff.

"We found that of workers that were leaving fossil fuel jobs, less than 2% ended up in a renewable energy job," he says. "In a place like West Virginia, it was even smaller than that. Approximately a quarter per cent of workers that left fossil fuel jobs were going to renewable energy jobs."

Researcher Eleanor Krause, who studies labor in the renewables sector, points out another challenge.

"Coal mining employment happens where coal mines exist," she explains. "These coal mines aren't necessarily the same places where the wind blows and the sun shines the brightest, and so it's not necessarily the case that we can just replace coal mines with wind turbines or solar panels."

Preparing a new workforce

The science is clear. If humans hope to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, the switch from carbon-emitting fossil fuels that warm the planet to renewable energy like wind and solar must happen quickly.

But even though a disproportionate amount of federal renewable investment funding has gone to red states like West Virginia, those dollars have not gone very far in making good on Biden's promise for a "just transition," says Krause.

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The problem, Krause suspects, is a lack of focus on workforce development over tax credits.

She says that investment in training programs in state and local colleges is key to revitalizing the workforce and livelihoods for the communities like Keyser.

Still, there are some programs trying to prepare a new workforce.

West Virginia native Josh Bowes, 31, is a participant at the Advanced Technology/Wind Energy Program at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, in Moorefield.

Bowes decided to change careers from contracting and construction. He commutes two hours each way from his home in Morgantown. He's in his last semester of the two-year program at the college, where he's learning to be a wind turbine technician.

Dakota Swick, left, and Coleman Mongold attend a class in the turbine technician program.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Dakota Swick, left, and Coleman Mongold attend a class in the turbine technician program.
Isaiah Smith, a professor who teaches the wind energy technology program, says money is the big factor in the energy conversation.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Isaiah Smith, a professor who teaches the wind energy technology program, says money is the big factor in the energy conversation.

"I want to stay here, and I want to see our state move forward," he says. "We have to modernize. We have to do what's best for our state, the country, the world, you know?"

Some of his classmates take a less idealistic approach.

For fellow student Dakota Swick, 28, the decision to enroll in the turbine technician program was practical, one he hopes will offer stability and a living wage.

"I've been working paycheck to paycheck ... working for this guy and that guy just to make maybe $200 or $300 a week," says Swick. "I'm hoping this will be the career — either the career job or the path to the job — that I'm going to stick with."

Their teacher, Isaiah Smith, has a similar philosophy.

Wind turbines form a backdrop to Keyser.
/ Haiyun Jiang for NPR
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Haiyun Jiang for NPR
Wind turbines form a backdrop to Keyser.

"I guess the best way I can put it is [that] my feelings don't matter that much. What matters is price. If you can give people power that's cheaper and cleaner, why would they pay more money for coal," Smith says bluntly.

For him, the tensions in the transition to renewables — in West Virginia and elsewhere — boil down to one thing.

"We're kind of past the point of feelings. It comes down to money, which, as you know, kind of runs the world."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.