In 1882, the Prospect House, a sprawling lodge overlooking a remote lake in New York's Adirondack Mountains, became the first hotel in the world to have electric lights in every room. Last month, a Quality Inn overlooking the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers became the first hotel in West Virginia to be powered by electricity drawn from the sun.
Each circumstance was remarkable, but of the two, the odds against a solar-powered hotel in a state so heavily devoted to coal were probably far longer. If historians a century from now are looking to pinpoint the day that the sun conquered coal, the ribbon cutting of the Mountain State's first solar hotel just might be it. Owned by the watersports company River Riders Inc., the hotel represents a transition in both energy and economics.
And it almost didn't happen. Last year, the West Virginia Legislature came within a filament of passing a bill that would have crippled the state's clean-energy concerns. Only an 11th-hour counterattack by friends of solar energy beat back the coal-friendly initiative. That the bill failed last year was curious enough; politicians of all stripes must kiss the ring of coal or kiss their electoral hopes goodbye. But this year, the issue didn't even come up, indicating that a page has turned.
This circumstance is part of a growing body of evidence that coal's tipping point may have been reached. Consider that in early April, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $250,000 for conspiring to violate mine safety laws after a 2010 disaster that killed 29 miners. A piddling sentence perhaps, but it hasn't been that long that the idea of convicting any West Virginia coal executive of anything would have been unthinkable.
Even more telling, one coal company after another is beginning to file for bankruptcy. In January, Arch Coal Inc., the second-largest coal company in the United States, sought bankruptcy protection, and the largest, Peabody Energy, filed in April.
In Appalachia, the politicians like to blame President Obama's "war on coal" for the industry's misfortunes, but Obama can only wish he were that powerful. In truth, the story is written in the language of economics, not public environmental policy. Coal companies have run out of veins that can be easily and cheaply mined at the same time that the planet is awash in oil and natural gas. Fracking, an avert-your-eyes technology used to wring gas from the depths of the earth, might have its own issues, but this added production has been more damaging to coal than the EPA.
In 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association, coal was used to generate 46 percent of the nation's energy. Last year, coal had been caught and exceeded by natural gas, its share of electricity production having plunged to 33 percent.
At a recent Audubon Society gathering in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle Colin Williams, whose Mountain View Solar and Wind LLC transformed the Harpers Ferry Quality Inn, said he no longer considers coal to be an enemy or a villain. It is merely another energy provider against which he expects solar to compete—and win. While the 289 solar panels won't meet the hotel's total electricity needs, the $100,000 project is expected to pay for itself in six years, after tax credits and federal grants are factored in. According to the West Virginia Department of Commerce, The 82-kilowatt system will produce enough energy to offset an estimated $10,000-plus annually in electricity costs.
Williams believes solar is important not just for energy, but for the jobs it will create as we transition away from fossil fuels. Outsiders marvel that the people of Appalachia have remained fiercely loyal to coal—after more than a century of labor strife, mine disasters, indifference about miners' health, a flagrant disregard for the law and catastrophic environmental impacts. The simple explanation for that loyalty is that, economically speaking, for decades there was little else. Alternative energy can be that something else. Former miners can be trained to install and maintain solar panels, a technology that will provide decades of work.
This is appearing increasingly possible. In 2016, 26 gigawatts (1 gigawatt can power 700,000 homes) will be added to the U.S. grid, 16 of which will come from solar and wind power. When Tesla offered a $35,000 electric car for sale, commentators scoffed—until 325,000 people plunked down a $1,000 deposit for a car that won't be delivered for another two years.
Obviously, there's a lot of punch left in coal. But those interested in reducing the flow of carbon into the atmosphere will discover that the end will come faster if advocates of alternative energy can sell their product not just as an environmental issue, but a jobs and gross domestic product issue as well.
Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of " Maryland's Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering."