Solar panels on a coal museum: It’s not ironic; it’s just smart

Published 12:26 pm Thursday, April 13, 2017

At this point, almost everyone has heard about the Kentucky Coal Museum adding solar panels to its roof. If you haven’t heard about it, you may be living in a coal mine: It’s been covered by everyone from the Courier-Journal to NPR to USA Today.

The general angle of the coverage has been to focus on the alleged irony of this move. “This news story makes you check the date, make sure it’s not April 1,” NPR reporter Steve Inskeep said the morning of April 7.

The Courier-Journal’s Morgan Watkins interviewed Tre’ Sexton with Bluegrass Solar, the company that helped install the museum’s solar panels, and Sexton also expressed surprise at what he saw as the counter-intuitiveness of solar panels on a coal museum.

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“That would be like showing up at a bank and they ask you if you’d mind taking some of this money out of the vault,” Sexton was quoted in Watkins story.

But using solar power at a coal museum is not ironic.

There are many museums around the country dedicated to landline telephones and the switchboards that used to be a part of everyday life, but it’s unlikely we would bat an eye at a telephone museum that had a WiFi network. Nor would we complain if a telegraph museum had a phone line.

We do not complain about museum guides who wear modern clothes as they lead tours of ancient history exhibits. We do not make fun of libraries that let you check out e-books to your Kindle. 

The simple truth is new technology always replaces old technology. Usually, we don’t complain when that happens. We adopt the new technology and enjoy its benefits, even as we hold on to love and nostalgia for the old technology.

When it comes to power sources, coal is old technology. Solar, wind and geothermal sources are new. But we’ve all been led to believe that somehow coal and solar are contemporaries, battling each other for dominance. That’s why solar panels on a coal museum seem ironic.

But by that same thinking, we ought to be torn over whether to get a cell phone or lug a telegraph around with us; we ought to be mounting record players in the dashboards of our cars.

Neither of those things are happening because humans love to adopt new and improved technology. Solar is now extremely cheap to install and highly efficient, as well as being far cleaner and better for our health than any power source you have to burn. On top of all that, it’s renewable and essentially unlimited. It’s the next big thing, as the soaring number of jobs in the industry proves.

That doesn’t mean coal doesn’t hold a lot of memories for people, especially people in eastern Kentucky, who grew up when coal was the lifeblood of their communities. Those memories ought to be preserved and held dear. But we need to get real about what’s happening and stop pretending we can use telegraphs forever.

There’s opportunity right now, with solar exploding in popularity around the globe, to try to fix the jobs problem faced in many coal communities. If solar panels can work well and save money for the Kentucky Coal Museum, deep in the Appalachian Mountains in a state with some of the cheapest electricity rates around, then they can work almost anywhere.

Kentucky ought to embrace solar and do whatever it can to bring a bunch of the solar jobs out there into the state. We could transition coal workers and coal families into solar workers and solar families, and then ride the new technology wave rather than stretching to make ends meet with old technology.