Last year, the Kentucky Coal Museum did a curious thing: it installed solar panels on its roof and now the museum, a shrine to the glories of coal, gets its power from the sun. The museum’s owner said the panels would cut the museum’s electric bill by at least a third.
Coal may have been king once upon a time. But all across coal country — in states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming — there’s a growing realization that the future lies elsewhere. As recently as 2000, for example, half of America’s electricity was generated by coal. Now, about a third is.
Coal has taken a back seat as renewable, cleaner energies like wind and solar come online in greater numbers across the United States. Though that coal museum is just one place, it’s telling that a shrine to an old way of life has made the switch to the future.
Traditionally ‘red states’ are leading the charge in the transition to cleaner, cheaper energy.
States that voted red in the 2016 presidential election occupy seven of the top-ten spots for wind and solar generation as a percentage of their electricity consumption, according to Environment America’s Renewables on the Rise 2020, released last month.
“There are clean energy leaders in big states and small states, red states and blue states, states on the coasts and states in the heartland,” according to Tony Dutzik and Jamie Friedman of Frontier Group. But the red states really are leading the nation in production.
Kansas, Iowa and North Dakota generate enough renewable energy to meet more than half their electricity demand, according to the report. Oklahoma is not far behind at 45 percent. Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota also appear on the top-ten list.
Meanwhile, Idaho (another Republican strong hold) generates more than 70% of its energy from renewable sources thanks to a network of raging rivers. The state’s rivers provide excellent sources for hydroelectric power, allowing utilities to offer the sixth-lowest electricity rates in the country. Idaho ranks second-lowest, next to Washington, among states that are not dominated by coal or natural gas.
Many wonder if this embrace of renewable energy will lead to a change in state politics.
Just after the 2018 Midterm election, a post-election voter survey “found strong support among Republicans and Democrats alike for government action to accelerate development and use of clean energy in the United States,” according to the survey sponsors, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions Forum and the Conservative Energy Network.
Even in coal country, wind and solar companies are sprouting up. “Mine the Sun,” says the website of one West Virginia solar company.
However, many point out that most states are embracing the cleaner energy simply because it’s better for the economy.
Even in coal country, coal CEOs see the writing on the wall. The CEO of Murray Energy, the biggest privately held coal mining firm in the United States, told Trump during a White House meeting last year that coal jobs simply aren’t coming back. “Those are my exact words, he can’t bring them back,” Robert Murray said in an interview with Forbes.
So far, about 2,400 have come back since Trump took over, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. The total coal mining industry employs about 160,000.
But here’s some context: The U.S. wind and solar industries together employ about 475,000 Americans — three times as many. On top of this, the Labor Department forecasts that of the 20 industries that will show the most jobs growth by 2026, the top two are in renewable energy. Jobs for solar-panel installers will double, growing 105%, while employment for wind-turbine technicians will nearly double, growing 96%.
And it’t not just jobs. Renewable energy is also much cheaper than traditional sources like coal and natural gas.
The cost of renewable energy has tumbled even further over the past year, to the point where almost every source of green energy can now compete on cost with oil, coal and gas-fired power plants.
Hydroelectric power is the cheapest source of renewable energy, at an average of $0.05 per kilowatt hour (kWh). Not far behind that is offshore wind, which costs close to $0.13/kWh. all these fuel types are now able to compete with the cost of developing new power plants based on fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which typically range from $0.05/kWh to over $0.15/kWh.
So although many politicians continue to bash renewable energy, including in ‘red states’ that have fully embraced the shift, it’s obvious that the U.S. is slowly turning the curve. It’s only a matter of time until more and more states start implementing cleaner energy solutions. And that change starts with you and your own personal sustainability.