In Appalachia, New Energy interns are helping to lead a transition from coal mining to sustainable energy and economies that benefit everyone, another example of change and grassroots solutions for and by rural families that are happening around the country.
There are no typical days for a New Energy intern in Appalachia.
Mornings might be spent installing HVAC systems in commercial buildings. Afternoons might be spent on lighting retrofits. Or they might go door-to-door, talking to people about home energy audits that save money and improve the safety and efficiency of homes.
The New Energy interns are working in their own communities, after all. No one knows their Appalachian home like they do. It’s one more way Kentuckians are leading when it comes to transitioning Appalachia from coal mining to new sustainable economies. It’s change for and by Eastern Kentuckians.
“We’re seeing optimistic signs that it could work,” said Chris Woolery of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED).
The New Energy Internship Program is the brainchild of MACED, an eastern-Kentucky nonprofit that works to help central Appalachia transition from coal. They advise businesses and provide financing, especially to local entrepreneurs and small businesses that may not qualify for traditional loans.
MACED also hosts classes on topics such as starting an Airbnb and launching a business on Etsy. The nonprofit also runs a business development course called FasTrac that can be completed online – especially important for future business owners who live in remote or rural areas, or those who balance business development with another job and family responsibilities.
Serving Kentucky’s 54 Appalachian counties, MACED has assisted a coffee shop owner who specializes in bagels, a podcaster who turned his hobby into a recording studio business – even a 12-year-old budding entrepreneur who launched his own dog biscuit company.
With the New Energy Internship Program, MACED is reaching out to an important part of Kentucky’s population: people who worked in the coal industry and are now looking for a fresh start.
“We were seeing all this news almost weekly about coal companies going bankrupt and closing their operations,” said Ivy Brashear, Appalachian transition director at MACED. “And so we tried to think about what is something that MACED could do that would help to fill that employment gap and to help retrain folks so that they aren’t just stuck out there without a job or any prospects.”
MACED’s internship program specifically targets former coal miners. Many interns learn of the program through neighbors.
“Almost every intern has come to us through word of mouth,” said Woolery, MACED’s residential energy coordinator.
The word intern may conjure up images of a younger person who’s just out of school. But because MACED is especially interested in former coal industry workers, interns are often a bit older.
“[They’re] looking for that second career and something else that’s going to be a little bit more sustainable for them,” said Brashear.
The six-month program is paid. But while those who complete it may qualify for further business guidance and financing from MACED, no permanent employment is guaranteed – which means it isn’t for everyone. Woolery said the program attracts “people who are willing to invest in themselves and take a risk.”
Though the program is small, New Energy interns have a solid track record. Some former interns have gone on to work with the Housing Development Alliance, an eastern Kentucky nonprofit that assists low-income families with home ownership. Others work with organizations building and retrofitting houses. One former intern works with Zero Mass Water, a solar-powered water-extraction-system company.
The New Energy Internship is actually two programs: one works with placement partners (outside organizations in need of workers with new energy skills), and another is designed for entrepreneurial interns “building pipelines for their own businesses,” as Woolery said.
Interns earn certifications in commercial and residential energy work and gain hands-on experience in technical industries such as solar. When they leave the program, they’re well positioned in the energy job market.
Many former interns want to stay in the region, due to ties with family and the land. The struggle to stay is common in Appalachia, especially in more rural or remote areas. How many jobs in highly specialized fields such as solar are there in central Appalachia?
“We identified the tremendous need for that type of skillset across the region,” Woolery said. “Because we would find ourselves in both residential and commercial programs, driving as much as six hours, round trip, to do the [new energy] work … I think the opportunity is maybe particularly more impactful in Appalachia, because there’s a lot of older housing stock, and it creates jobs that can’t be outsourced.”
New Energy Internship graduate Zach Ebersole is working to help other people continue to live in his home region. “I want people to stay,” Ebersole said in a statement from MACED.
As an intern, Ebersole helped improve energy efficiency of these often-older homes through work such as sealing houses to prevent drafts. Getting the word out – and getting neighbors to trust the idea of energy efficiency – is part of the struggle.
“For some people [energy efficiency] is something you know really well or it’s really new to you,” said Rachel Norton, energy specialist at MACED.
Staying in central Appalachia may mean creating your own opportunities, something Ebersole knows well. He founded and operates two small businesses, including a refurbishing business called Blue Grace Revolutionize.
In February, two new interns will begin their work with the program. In the future, MACED wants to place interns with local governments looking to increase energy efficiency and keep costs down, an urgent priority since Kentucky localities are losing the financial benefits of the coal severance tax.
“Every one of these [internships] has been different,” Norton said. “Every person has had different strengths and weaknesses…So we’ve learned a lot about doing our best to satisfy individual needs to get people where they need to go.”
The New Energy Internship Program grew out communities’ specific needs in eastern Kentucky. What would help not just people who need jobs but also their broader communities?
Brashear said people shouldn’t only be asking how Appalachia is going to replace coal.
“What are all of the things that you’re doing to build a strong foundation of community economic development?” she said.
In the wake of coal, a single industry may not emerge. But the region may thrive due to many smaller efforts.
“It isn’t this broad–brush approach of, let’s bring in some kind of outside industry, or extraction industry, that is going to hire 500 people at once,” Brashear said. “But instead, let’s train all of these people to become small business owners, to do energy efficiency retrofits. To think differently about how they engage civically – and let’s see how that ripples out.”
Alison Stine is a writer and editor based in Appalachia. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Guardian and Longreads. She also is a contributing editor for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and author of several books, including her debut novel “Road Out of Winter,” to be published by Mira (HarperCollins) in September 2020. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted content specifically created for Equal Voice can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.