Front Porch Blog

Get out the sunscreen: Solar is coming to Southwest Virginia

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The Southwest Virginia Solar Fair on May 9 in Wise, Va., will be a celebration of the upcoming solar development in Southwest Virginia and brings an emerging and exciting effort full circle. In May 2016, the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum hosted by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise asked how we can diversify the region’s economy to meet the demands and challenges of the 21st century.

During plenary sessions and in the hallways there were a series of conversations among citizens and area leaders that raised questions around how solar energy could be developed locally in a strategic way to create jobs, spur and support other economic initiatives, and build and retain wealth in our region.

Those conversations were the seeds of what has become an action team called the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia. Co-convened by Appalachian Voices, UVA-Wise and People Incorporated, and professionally facilitated by Dialogue and Design Associates, the Solar Workgroup has laid out clear objectives and paths to meeting them. Chief among those goals is to directly support high visibility and high impact solar energy installations that will prove to the region that this technology is a viable option for meeting energy demand and spurring economic development, even in the heart of coal country, even in a state that’s not especially solar friendly — yet.

With international companies eyeing Wise County for solar projects, the growing number of stakeholders in the Solar Workgroup — which include many local economic development entities, educational institutions and other nonprofits — agree that the region has the potential to become a solar industry hub. With solar now employing nearly twice as many people in the U.S. as coal, oil and natural gas combined, many in the region think solar development could be the key to revitalizing the economy with high-paying local job opportunities.

Southwest Virginia has long been an energy producing region. For generations, coal was the backbone of our economy and continues to be an important part of our regional identity. As the world changes around us, many leaders are now working to honor our past while looking to a future that will be powered in large part by renewable sources. We can still be an energy-producing region, it’s the medium of that production that will inevitably need to shift toward sources like solar, which promise to be the backbone of the new economy of the 21st century.

That need to honor the past, look toward the future and build public support for a key pillar of our new economy is what the Solar Fair is all about. People will have the opportunity meet SPARC-E, Mountain Empire Community College’s off-the-grid, 5,000-watt, mobile solar system built by students. They will also have a chance to get an up-close and personal view of solar energy systems and see how they work.

The Empty Bottle String Band, a local favorite, will be performing live and amplified by solar power. And for the kids, we’ll also have an inflatable bouncy house powered by solar energy and other free, fun games.

And Appalachian Voices will announce the winners of our solar mini-grants contest for middle and high school students. Two $500 grants will be awarded to teams of students for developing a “Solar in your School” project plan to be implemented this fall.

The Solar Fair is also the launch date of the Solarize Wise residential solarization program, a collaborative effort of the Solar Workgroup, to make it cheaper and easier for homeowners, small businesses and farmers to install solar power in Wise County.

Contact Adam Wells (adam@appvoices.org) or Lydia Graves (lydia@appvoices.org) at 276-679-1691 for more information.

A fifth generation Virginian hailing from the beautiful mountain region of Wise County, Adam got his start with Appalachian Voices as a volunteer. He now serves as the organization's Economic Diversification Coordinator helping to bring clean energy and other opportunities to the Virginia coalfields.

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