In rural Colorado, the kids of coal miners learn to install solar panels
Where the mines once provided steady employment, solar energy now offers jobs for the next generation.
This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where HCN reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.
At a picnic table in a dry grass field, a group of elementary school students watched as high school senior Xavier Baty, a broad-shouldered 18-year-old in a camouflage ball cap and scuffed work boots, attached a hand-sized solar panel cell to a small motor connected to a fan. He held the panel to face the setting Colorado sun, adjusting its angle to vary the fan speed.
“Want to hear a secret?” he asked the kids around him. “This is the only science class I ever got an A in.”
As he readily acknowledges, Baty hasn’t been the most enthusiastic science student at Delta High School. This class, however, is different. Along with a group of other seniors and a few juniors, Baty is enrolled in “Solar Energy Training.” The class not only provides a science credit needed for graduation; it also trains students for careers in solar energy or the electrical trades. It allows Baty to work with his hands, something he enjoys, while positioning him for employment in a fast-growing industry.
In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, solar energy — along with a strong organic farm economy and recreation dollars — is helping to fill the economic hole left by the dying coal industry, which sustained the area for more than 120 years. When the mines still ran, graduating seniors could step immediately into good-paying jobs. But in the past five years, two of Delta County’s three mines have closed. Approximately 900 local mining jobs have been lost in the past decade. Ethan Bates, for example, another senior in the solar energy training class, is the son of a mine foreman who lost his job when the Bowie Mine outside Paonia closed in 2016. Now, he’ll graduate as a certified solar panel installer.
National environmental and climate groups often discuss “just transitions” for fossil-fuel dependent communities like Delta, or Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Mining companies are going bankrupt, while every year, solar and other renewables get cheaper. Such economic shifts are complex, but one thing is clear: If the transition to renewables is to truly account for the communities and economies it undercuts, it will include programs like Delta High School’s solar training. The class positions young people for success in a coal-free future, and does so from the ground up, attentive to the needs and cares of the local community.
SCIENCE TEACHER BEN GRAVES started the class four years ago. Described by a student as “cool” but with a “mad-scientist vibe,” Graves has a salt-and-pepper beard and dresses casually in trail-running shoes and hardwearing khakis. In class, he is affable but authoritative.
As a teacher, Graves sees his main duty as educating young people and creating good citizens. But to do right by his students, he needs to set them up for success under the current economic realities. And that requires classes like solar training. “I think we have to be doing some sort of trades education,” he said. “For a kid with a high school diploma, working service is really all you can do without more training.”
Many students in the solar class, like Baty, weren’t particularly successful in traditional science classes. They’re kids who haven’t “played the school game,” as Graves put it, of college admission and standardized tests. For these students, training in electrical trades has now joined ranks with welding and agriculture programs offered by the high school.
In the past four years, the class has helped install two solar arrays behind Delta High School. Students have done much of the work designing the structures and digging the trenches to lay conduit cables. This year for their final project, they will take apart and fully re-install one of the solar arrays. According to Graves, teachers at other local schools are keen to integrate solar training into their classes. Solar Energy International, a local nonprofit and a major catalyst behind the Delta class, is working to integrate solar training into science curriculum across the region.