Switching to a renewable energy source has its downfall for those in the coal industry

By Carly Valerious

PAONIA– Three members in the Welt family work at the last functioning coal mine in the north fork valley and they are struggling to deal with implications that result from the dying coal industry.

Our planet is getting warmer and the need to switch to renewable energy sources, like solar, is becoming more urgent. The population in the valley has plummeted because of the sudden closure of coal mines. The entire community in and surrounding Paonia has changed. The Welt family has been affected first hand. 

“Everyone is in survival mode. We are trying to keep our families whole and employed,” sustainable engineer at West Elk Coal Kathy Welt said. 

Working in coal means a starting salary of 70,000-80,000 dollars and great benefits. The North Fork valley was run by coal. In 2014, over 3,000 residents in the valley were employed by coal mines. Now, there are only around 300. 

Those who lost their jobs were “the bread winners,” Welt said.

Because of the massive loss of jobs, families packed their bags and left in search of a new livelihood.

“The faces in the community, if you will, have changed,” said Welt.

West Elk coal is predicted to close within the next 15 years. Kathy Welt plans to retire by then, but the future is not as clear for her sons who mine at West Elk. Kathy’s son, Camden Welt, has a family of his own he has to support. 

He has set up an LLC for ranching, but does not know if he will be able to support himself, Kathy Welt said.

Even residents in the community who don’t work directly in coal have had to face negative implications. Kathy’s husband works for an auto dealership and even they had to deal with an economic blow due to the closures. 

When the mines close and the men leave, no one buys pickup trucks Welt said. 

Coal is dying and solar picking up speed. It seems as though Solar would be the obvious switch in employment, but the two industries differ greatly.

“It’s disturbing to a lot of folks to hear oh well we will just retrain ya,” said welt sitting in the west elk conference room.

In Colorado, starting salary in the solar industry is 15-16 dollars an hour with little benefits and lots of travel. A massive lifestyle change in comparison to coal. 

“Pay and benefits don’t grow on trees,” said Welt.

Across town, Solar Energy International (SEI) is trying to make switching to a renewable energy source easier. Solar Foreword is a program that helps rural communities in the economic transition to solar. 

Big cities are making energy goals they can actually achieve because of the resources available to them.

“Rural communities may make these goals, but they don’t have the resources or the road maps in place,” Solar Foreward’s manager Mary Marshall said. 

Solar is local and as a result communities would no longer need to pay an outside corporation for electricity. Solar means economic independence. 

“Energy independence is pretty universally supported,” Marshall said sitting on SEI’s lawn. 

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