Joshua Kraybill, project manager for Got Electric, has been working with a team of apprentices and electricians on solar projects at several Southwest Virginia schools, including St. Paul Elementary in Wise County. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

ST. PAUL – Matt McFadden can’t help but think about his daughter as he watches the framework for a solar array rise on the roof of the elementary school in this Wise County town.

She’s just 10, but her dad is already pondering her future, and whether she’ll be able to find a job in the community that has been home to generations of his family.

The rooftop solar, part of a pilot project taking shape at a dozen schools in Wise and Lee counties, won’t solve all of the problems in a region that has contended with declines in both population and jobs. But McFadden, who two years ago joined Secure Futures, the company that is developing the solar systems, believes that a turn toward renewable energy in Virginia’s coalfields could both save taxpayer dollars and launch a steady stream of employment for the next generations of workers.

Map by Robert Lunsford

“I knew that solar would be slightly an uphill battle,” McFadden said. “But when we frame it toward saving money and creating jobs, people love it, because we’ve lost a lot of jobs.”

By the middle of next year, seven schools in Wise County and five in Lee County will be powered at least in part by solar energy through an initiative called Securing Solar for Southwest Virginia, according to program developers. Work is nearly complete at St. Paul Elementary and at Jonesville Middle – a delay in receiving the solar panels has put things slightly behind schedule – and crews are also working at Elk Knob Elementary in Pennington Gap.

All told, Staunton-based Secure Futures – which will own and operate the solar projects and sell the electricity back to the school divisions – expects that the dozen schools will save $11.5 million in energy costs over the lifetime of the roughly two-decade power purchase agreements. 

But the cost savings are just part of the plan.

Among the workers building and installing the solar arrays this summer were 10 Wise and Lee County high school students and recent graduates. They were paid $17 an hour during an eight-week apprenticeship, and they earned nine stackable credit hours through Mountain Empire Community College. Tools and gear were included, and they also received a stipend to attend a seven-day classroom component and money to help with gas.

Several of the apprentices who had finished high school were offered jobs with Got Electric, Secure Futures’ electrical partner on the project, McFadden said. The program will resume early next year with another class of apprentices.

“I don’t know another program where a 16-year-old kid can go out and earn college credits, six grand in pay in two months, and get the experience that they’re going to get here,” said McFadden, who graduated in 2002 from the old J.J. Kelly High School in Wise.

“I didn’t have these opportunities when I was in school,” he said. “This stuff didn’t exist – you didn’t have apprenticeship opportunities.”

As coal jobs have declined in the region, schools have had to think about changing workforce needs – and, if they don’t want kids to leave after they graduate, about how to prepare students for fields that have growth potential, said William Austin, who heads the Wise County Career-Technical Center.

“We’ve really tried to broaden our spectrum here in Wise County,” he said. “We have to sort of take the pulse of the community and decide, hey, this is what we need to be working on to try to educate our students with those particular skill sets so that they can stay in our area and not have to leave our area to be employed.

“We’ve sort of had to reinvent ourselves in regard to what we can do, and what is available.”

* * *

St. Paul Elementary is one of a dozen schools in Wise and Lee counties participating in a pilot program that will provide them with renewable energy at a reduced rate, while also creating apprenticeships for county high school students. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

The idea for the school solar pilot grew out of conversations at a 2016 economic development forum at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. 

A group got to talking about whether, and how, solar could be an economic catalyst for Virginia’s coalfield counties, said Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices, which has been a partner on the solar initiative from the beginning.

The counties – Lee, Wise, Scott, Dickenson, Buchanan, Russell and Tazewell – have seen their population become smaller and older since the years immediately following World War II, as coal production became more mechanized and jobs have disappeared.

Lee County, for example, which counted almost 36,000 residents in 1950, had dropped to not quite 22,000 by 2021. Wise County had 56,000-plus residents in 1950 and about 35,600 in 2021. 

Meanwhile, those populations have gotten older: The median age in Wise County is 41.6, up from 28.6 in 1980. The increase has been similar in Lee County: from 31.1 in 1980 to 45.4 today. The state’s median age is 38.8.

Out of those talks in Wise grew the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, a collaboration among nonprofits, colleges, state agencies, businesses and others. Its mission: Develop a renewable energy industry cluster in the coalfield counties of Southwest Virginia. 

The next year, the group released a “solar roadmap” that set out goals around developing sites for solar projects and expanding workforce development opportunities around the solar industry.

In particular, the group eventually asked, how could the region benefit from adding solar to rooftops?

They zeroed in on public buildings like schools and government facilities, Wells said, for a couple of reasons: Those places tend to be at the center of a community and are highly visible. And any cost savings would be passed along to local taxpayers.

A key to making the plan work was a mechanism called a power purchase agreement, or PPA. Under such an agreement, the customer – say, a school – can buy renewable energy without having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to build a solar array. The solar developer pays for and owns the installation, and then sells the electricity back to the customer.

The structure also allows schools and nonprofits to take indirect advantage of federal tax credits for solar panel purchases, which they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for. Under a PPA, the solar developer gets the tax advantage and can pass the savings along in the rate structure. 

But state law – and, in some places, existing utility contracts – limited the amount of solar energy that could be generated and sold through PPAs.

The General Assembly in 2013 had created a pilot program that allowed for PPAs in Dominion Energy’s service area, up to a 50 megawatt cap. Interest from school divisions and others quickly followed, and by the beginning of 2020 Virginia was ranked among the Top 10 states for installed solar capacity at schools, according to Generation180, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit that advocates for solar energy.

By the start of 2020, 89 schools in Virginia, or 3% of the state’s K-12 schools, had some kind of solar, Generation180 reported. The 50 megawatt cap had been hit, and no new PPAs were allowed.

[Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

School-based solar was moving much more slowly in other parts of the state. In 2017, the PPA pilot had expanded to include Appalachian Power, but existing contracts between the utility and public customers like school districts continued to limit access to PPAs.

The marketplace opened up further in 2020 with passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act and the Solar Freedom Act, raising caps on the amount of electricity that could be sourced through PPAs and creating a PPA pilot program for Old Dominion Power, which serves parts of the coalfields. The next year, Appalachian reached a new deal with customers that cleared the way for PPAs in its territory.

With the regulatory path finally open, the Solar Workgroup in the fall of 2020 launched Securing Solar for Southwest Virginia, a partnership that includes Appalachian Voices, Mountain Empire Community College and Secure Futures.

McFadden, who joined Secure Futures in 2020 after moving back to Wise County from Charlottesville, hit the road, making presentations about the solar initiative to school districts across the region. 

Wise County, he said, had been looking at solar for “a long time,” and once the roadblocks had been cleared the county jumped at the opportunity.

“Wise was the star in the dark, if you will – they were the first to go,” he said.

“When we first started this project, coal was the dominant industry here for decades,” said Greg Mullins, who retired as the county’s schools superintendent in late June. “It’s had a real positive impact in many ways on this area. But I think we’ve reached a place as a nation where we’re going to have to have a lot of different energy sources. We’re already seeing it.” 

It takes a lot of energy – and, thus, money – to keep a school running, he said, and this is a way to defray some of that cost.

His board has been receptive to the idea of solar since the beginning, he said. The division started talking to Secure Futures at least three years ago; initial conversations about solar went back even further. 

He can understand the reluctance among some school divisions to embrace solar. “Coal has driven this bus for a long time,” he said. “We wanted to ease into it and talk about all the reasons we think it’s a good thing. We’ve always stated that we think there’s room for lots of different energy sources, this being one of them.”

Wise County signed a 20-year power purchase agreement. Lee County soon came on board as well and inked a 25-year deal.

The chance to get new roofs on three aging schools as part of the deal was attractive, said Mark Long, head of career and technical education in Lee County. So was the workforce development angle.

“I have worked and worked to get internships the whole time I’ve been here, which has been like five or six years,” Long said. “But we have a lot of mom-and-pops. We’re rural, and it’s so hard for me even to get job shadowing.”

The opportunity to place multiple students in paid apprenticeships helped make the program a great fit, he said.

The workforce development piece of the pilot program, including the apprentices’ pay and training, was funded with about $250,000 from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and $50,000 from Secure Futures, Wells said. Mountain Empire Community College in Wise County is a training partner, and there’s a place in the project for Southwest Virginia Community College in Tazewell County as soon as public school divisions in its service area join up, he said.

Wells believes that interest in these kinds of solar projects will only grow with passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which will provide new and expanded renewable energy tax credits, including more incentives for smaller-scale solar installations. 

If demand blossoms, more legislative and regulatory debates are likely, as caps still exist on how much power can be generated through PPAs in Virginia.

* * *

Ten apprentices — including, from left, Anthony Hamilton, Zackary Phipps, Noah Mullins and Isaiah Meeks — spent the summer working on solar installations at schools in Wise and Lee counties. All of the apprentices, who were either current high school students or recent graduates from the two counties, were paid for their work and also earned credits from Mountain Empire Community College. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

On a hot afternoon in late June, the four apprentices working at St. Paul had sought shelter from the sun under a tent near their job site trailer.

The work can be hot, and climbing up and down from rooftops can take some getting used to, they acknowledged.

But the payoffs have been substantial, they said.

“I’ll be honest: The money kind of started it out,” said Isaiah Meeks, who has one more year of high school to go. “And then once I got into it, I realized it was a lot more interesting than I initially thought it was going to be.” He said he’d learned to use tools like pipe threaders and corded bandsaws, and that day he’d started bending conduit. 

Noah Mullins, who graduated in May and said he’d probably be working at McDonald’s if not for the apprenticeship, agreed. “Seventeen dollars an hour is a big benefit to help you get on your feet,” he said. “It’s the main reason I did it.”

It turned out to be engaging work. “Anything they do, they instantly show us how to do it,” he said of the electricians who work alongside the apprentices. “If we want to do something, we can.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, what they gave us,” he said. “It’s great money, it’s a good opportunity to get on your feet and actually start whatever you’re going to do in life.”

The work has both construction and electrical components. The apprentices, who all earned OSHA certification and previously had taken classes through their schools’ career and technical education programs, learned how to build the racking systems, and then transitioned to working directly with the electricians on the team, bending and threading conduit and mounting equipment. 

Patricia Morrison, director of the Division of Registered Apprenticeship in the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, said interest in apprenticeships seems to be rebounding after a COVID slowdown. 

“People are ready to get out and start something new,” she said.

At any given time, Morrison’s office is working with between 2,000 and 3,000 employers and close to 12,000 apprentices. Many of those are adults who might be in multi-year programs. But the state launched a youth apprenticeship program in 2017 to work with high school students, and it’s slowly catching on, she said.

Morrison believes that apprenticeships can help students take control of their own career choices. Instead of just attending whichever college their parents pushed them toward, these students learn to take calculated risks and make decisions for themselves, she said. 

“It’s how they start adulting, really,” she said. “They’re not treated any differently than any other employee. If they’re going to mess with their phone and come in late, they may very well lose their job.”

And with their emphasis on real-time, on-the-job learning, she said, apprenticeships give employers workers who have the most up-to-date training available – and who might be inclined to stick around on a full-time basis once their training is complete.

Joshua Kraybill, Got Electric’s project manager for the Southwest Virginia solar sites, understands that not all of the apprentices see this as the start of a career – some just wanted a good-paying summer job.

“And that’s fine,” he said. ”But there’s also a handful of guys who say, ‘Hey, I really like this.’” They’ve shown initiative, he said – watching the electricians work when they have some down time, seeking out more tasks and more instruction. These are the ones, he said, who might be hired on as helpers when their apprenticeships end.

Even if they don’t stay in the solar industry, they’re getting valuable experience in electrical work, Kraybill said. 

“There’s great money in the trades – plumbing, electrical, all of that,” he said. “There’s such a huge shortage. If this at least turns them on to that, and they say, ‘OK, maybe not solar, but I would like to do industrial electrical work, or residential, or commercial electrical work’ – this can open up that door for them and they can earn very, very well for themselves.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics put the median hourly wage for solar installers in Virginia at $21.96, or $43,280 a year, as of May 2021. For electricians, it’s $27.81 an hour, or $58,560. The median household income in Wise County, meanwhile, is $41,285; in Lee, it’s $35,006. 

“They can work anywhere in the country,” Kraybill said. “And so hopefully this, at the end of the day, is a launching pad for them.”

If all goes according to Secure Futures’ plan, there will be plenty of work to keep the apprentices busy in their own backyard. If the company can spread the solar gospel to schools throughout the region, all the way up the Interstate 81 corridor, that could mean 10 years’ worth of installation jobs, McFadden said. The company also plans to launch a subsidiary, Lonesome Pine Solar, that would be partly owned by Secure Futures and partly by local interests. It eventually would branch out to small commercial solar jobs, and possibly residential and shared solar projects, he said.

“This has been a real challenge for students coming out of schools here in Southwest, especially someone in a highly trained program, like an electrician,” said Tony Smith, president and founder of Secure Futures. “Many of them find they have to move out of their community. So what we’re trying to establish here is a pipeline of solar projects, starting with these projects with Wise and Lee county.”

McFadden understands the place of honor that the coal industry has long held with some of his neighbors. He never worked in a mine – he got his underground mine card but never used it – but he has family and friends who went that route. 

“I do believe we can create a small industry and an extremely long pipeline to fill out some of the job needs,” McFadden said. “But I don’t think that it goes with destroying coal. … We’ve always been a producer of energy here in Southwest, and I think it’s a good heritage to keep moving forward.”

McFadden moved away from Wise County to find work that would have more potential for advancement. But it didn’t take him long to come back, and today he lives in the same house where he grew up.

“Southwest Virginia’s been experiencing population decline for the last 15 years,” he said. “Anything we can do to draw folks in, to keep them here and give them a good life, a good paycheck – that’s what it’s about. Trust me, I left the area looking for something else, and I’ll never do it again.”

Among the partners in the solar project are (from left) Gary Lawson, director of maintenance for Wise County Public Schools; Greg Mullins, Wise County’s schools superintendent, who retired at the end of June; Kris Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College; Tony Smith, president of Secure Futures; and Matt McFadden, project coordinator for Secure Futures. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.