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What happens when a wind farm comes to a coal town?

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we incorrectly say that coal jobs have been in decline since the 1970s. The decline began in the 1980s.]


And I'm Ari Shapiro in Keyser, W.V., where you can see a shift the entire country is experiencing towards renewable energy. The country's first major climate policy, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, gave that transition a boost. It passed with the key vote of Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia.

Like many towns in this state, Keyser used to depend on coal. This railroad track running through the center of town ran nonstop with coal trains. Right now, it's quiet. But on the snowcapped mountains in the distance, a long row of wind turbines slowly spin in the breeze. You can see the turbines and the railroad tracks from the window of Queen's Point Coffee shop, where I met Keyser's mayor, Damon Tillman.

DAMON TILLMAN: Energy is huge in this town. And without it, we wouldn't have very much.

SHAPIRO: Mayor Tillman grew up in Keyser. He's been head of the city government for six years. And he says lots of people here who didn't work directly in the coal mines still had jobs that depended on the industry, like on the railroads. But that all started disappearing back in the 1970s with automation. By the time renewable energy came along, the coal industry was already a fragment of what it had been.

And today?

TILLMAN: It's gone. I mean, the coal industry is about phased out.

SHAPIRO: It struck me last night, just at the hotel, at the place we ate dinner - you could see the people who work in coal mines because they had black dust on their face and hands and clothes.

TILLMAN: It's almost like your trophy, saying, hey, I worked hard for the day...


TILLMAN: ...You know? And I just want something to eat and go home.

SHAPIRO: And how much of that is also just about identity - like, this is who we are and who we've always been?

TILLMAN: It is. It's part of that Appalachian Mountain thing, you know? I think people are very proud of who they are and where they're from.

SHAPIRO: I'm curious, you know, with the support of Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Biden administration got the Inflation Reduction Act, which has a lot of federal money coming to places like West Virginia to transition towards clean energy. So on the one hand, you're getting money and jobs and tax benefits, and on the other hand, you're getting a push away from what has been the energy source for this state for a very long time. How do you balance those two things?

TILLMAN: Well, that's true, but let me say this first - is, yes, Joe Manchin did get a lot of - and I like Joe. I mean, I talk to him a good bit. But the thing is, a city like Keyser don't ever see any of that money. Hardly ever would - will we see any money from that.

SHAPIRO: I mean, just to be blunt, do you wish he had voted against it?

TILLMAN: I do. I do.

SHAPIRO: And what does he say when you tell him that?

TILLMAN: Well, I've never told him that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TILLMAN: So Joe, if you hear me, there you go, bud (laughter). You've seen how the people in Keyser live. You know, I'm not saying we are poor people. I'll tell you, we're proud people.



TILLMAN: Like, the Davisson brothers - you know, that's a band from Bridgeport, W.V. You know, they got a song out called "Po' Boyz."


DAVISSON BROTHERS BAND: (Singing) From the beat-up towns all around, nothing but dirt and hand-me-downs. It ain't our choice. We're just po' boyz (ph).

TILLMAN: Well, we're just the po' boyz of Keyser.


DAVISSON BROTHERS BAND: (Singing) Hey now, everybody holler. Hell no, ain't got a dollar.

SHAPIRO: We requested an interview with Senator Manchin, who has announced his retirement. He declined to talk to us.


DAVISSON BROTHERS BAND: (Singing) We've got girls from the country so...


SHAPIRO: We've driven up a winding road to the top of the ridge where it looks like you're in a snow globe. All of the trees are covered in white. And above us, you can actually hear the wind turbines spinning.


DOUG VANCE: My whole family worked in coal.

SHAPIRO: Doug Vance is a manager on this wind farm, and he represents the energy shift that the entire country's experiencing right now - away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels that have caused climate change towards renewable energy that can slow global warming.

VANCE: I was in a fuel preparation plant, and that's where I worked for quite a number of years before transitioning into wind in 2008.

SHAPIRO: And boy, you can really feel the wind right now.

VANCE: It really is windy today.

SHAPIRO: Why don't we duck into the car and continue the conversation...

VANCE: We can do that.

SHAPIRO: ...With less wind.

VANCE: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: The Biden administration often talks about what it calls a just transition for people moving out of work in fossil fuels - doing right by people losing their jobs. And clean energy projects from the Inflation Reduction Act are disproportionately going to red states. But the thing is, processing coal requires many hands, which means lots of jobs. Renewables like wind and solar are just not as hands-on.

VANCE: But I think that's that way in every industry. You know, artificial intelligence and automation and things like that have taken a lot of the place of manual labor.

SHAPIRO: What Doug Vance says is true. Automation is one big reason coal jobs started to disappear in the 1970s. And after that, cheap natural gas took away many more coal jobs. So the industry had been shrinking dramatically for decades, long before turbines first showed up on this ridge in 2012.

How many people work here for this wind farm?

VANCE: We have six full-time employees, and then we have a lot of supporting contractors when we have outages, and we do substation electrical work.

SHAPIRO: Six sounds like a very small number, I got to say.

VANCE: It is. It's a small number.

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

MARK CURTIS: And, you know, we found that of workers that were leaving fossil fuel jobs, certainly less than 2% ended up in a renewable energy job. So it's not a lot. And in a place like West Virginia, it was even smaller than that. You know, approximately 0.25% of workers that left fossil-fuel jobs were going to renewable energy jobs.

SHAPIRO: So people like Doug Vance might represent the country's shift from fossil fuels to renewables, but he doesn't represent the workforce. He's the lucky exception who got a job in wind. And researcher Eleanor Krause points out another challenge. She's a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard who's heading to a teaching job at the University of Kentucky.

ELEANOR KRAUSE: Coal mining employment happens where coal mines exist, and 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 sort of replace coal mines with wind turbines or replace coal mines with solar panels to provide alternative sources of energy production and alternative sources of jobs.

SHAPIRO: And Krause says there's another thing many people get wrong about coal. For the most part, renewables are not the reason those jobs went away. But then there's the visual - natural gas fracking just doesn't cut a silhouette over town the way wind turbines twirl on the ridge over Keyser.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is MetroNews "Talkline..."


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...With Hoppy Kercheval.

SHAPIRO: Hoppy Kercheval has been broadcasting to the people of his home state for nearly 50 years. He hosts the daily program "Talkline" on West Virginia MetroNews. So if anybody has a read on how people in this state are feeling, it's him.

HOPPY KERCHEVAL: I think a realization has begun to set in that coal was declining anyway. But it's always very emotional because so many people in the state are connected in one way or another to these traditional energy sources.

SHAPIRO: How do you think people generally view the Inflation Reduction Act? What do you think the prevailing view of that legislation is?

KERCHEVAL: Manchin was seen as selling out to Biden and his fellow Democrats. And politically, that hurt him. But at the same time, the practical aspect is 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. So on one hand, you have political leaders and others and community leaders who are more than willing to be at the ground-breaking and the ribbon-cutting but, at the same time, politically, denounce or be critical of the Inflation Reduction Act. That is the paradox of that.

SHAPIRO: And that is part of the divide that Callie Dayton is trying to straddle. She's external affairs manager for Clearway, the energy company that owns the Pinnacle Wind Farm, so a big part of her job is listening to the community. And she's from here. She grew up right outside of Keyser. We talked to her as we walked down Keyser's Main Street.

CALLIE DAYTON: There's concern sometimes, obviously, about safety, you know, viewshed, things of that nature, but...

SHAPIRO: You said viewshed. That's, like...


SHAPIRO: ...Looking at the horizon and seeing...


SHAPIRO: ...The turbines.

DAYTON: Uh-huh, yeah. So for me, they're really interesting. I don't remember, really, life without those turbines up on the mountain. And they just, I think, serve as a testament to our efforts in the community. We've made a huge effort to make sure that people understand what's in their backyard.

SHAPIRO: Further down Main Street, Sheila Wagoner (ph) is about to climb into her car. Her father used to be a railroad engineer moving coal. She's 71, grew up in Keyser, and she misses the way things used to be.

SHEILA WAGONER: I really don't care for those windmills.

SHAPIRO: Why not?

WAGONER: I guess I wasn't brought up with that kind of society. Like, 50 of them together - who likes all that? I mean, if you had one here and there, staggered out - wouldn't be so bad is all.

SHAPIRO: So what do you think when you look up and see that?

WAGONER: Oh, my (laughter).


SHAPIRO: Just then, a train horn sounds, and it's a rare sight - cars full of coal. As we watch them rumble by, Sheila Wagoner gets a little emotional.

Does that remind you of the old times seeing those coal cars roll by?

WAGONER: Yeah, and those memories are good memories. My dad passed at 64, but it was from working hard.


SHAPIRO: The science on this transition is clear. If humans hope to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we have to switch tracks quickly from carbon-emitting fossil fuels that warm the planet to renewable energy like wind and solar. But even among people in West Virginia who support wind projects, it's hard to find anyone who talks about it in the context of global warming. One exception - Josh Bose (ph).

JOSH BOSE: I was born on Earth Day. And so since I was a kid, every birthday - it was always at least some essence of Earth Day theme.

SHAPIRO: He decided to change careers from contracting and construction. And now, at age 31, he's in his last semester of a two-year program at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College. He's learning to be a wind turbine technician.

BOSE: I want to stay here, and I want to see our state move forward.

SHAPIRO: His classmates take a less idealistic approach. So does his teacher, Isaiah Smith, who was just turning 23 on the day we visited.

ISAIAH SMITH: I guess the best way I can put it is my feelings don't matter that much. What matters is price. And if you can give people power that's cheaper and cleaner, why would they pay more money for coal? - because that's really what it's coming down to.

SHAPIRO: As Isaiah Smith puts it, we are past the point of feelings. It comes down to money, and money runs the world.


DAVISSON BROTHERS BAND: (Singing) Yeah, we just po' boyz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.