Shepherdstown, West Virginia, as Brandon Dennison is quick to tell me, “is nothing like the rest of the state.” It’s a small, quaint college town of around 3,500 students and 1,500 full-timers; the buildings lining the main corridor, German Street, date from the town’s founding in the 18th century, though the storefronts now advertise bubble tea and organic wares. Maryland is visible just across the Potomac.
Dennison is neither a Shepherdstown resident nor native; he grew up in Ona and lives in Wayne, a small town deep in coal country, a six-hour drive from Shepherdstown and just a half an hour from the Kentucky border. He came to Shepherdstown for college because it was as far away as he could get from Wayne while still availing of in-state tuition, and he’s back now on a June Sunday for two reasons.
First, the pastor of the town church, Shepherdstown Presbyterian, where Dennison served as a youth minister for five years while attending Shepherd College, had recently announced his retirement; the town was gathering for a celebration of his 41-year career. Second, there’s an advance screening of the documentary From The Ashes, premiering June 25 on the National Geographic channel, was being held the same day at the local movie theater.
The film, produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies and RadicalMedia and directed by Mike Bonfiglio, traces the coal industries’ pernicious influence on the United States’s landscape, health, and economy. We see a mother in Dallas fighting to clean up the air in her city after learning that the nearby coal plant was responsible for her children’s asthma; we see the town of Colstrip, Montana, built around and supported by a four-unit coal power plant, facing an uncertain future as two of the units prepare to shut down; we see a North Carolina woman protesting her state government for failing to clean up the water soiled by coal ash. But perhaps nowhere has the reach of the coal industry been more pervasive or damaging than in West Virginia, where 200 years of relentless mining by a (now-faltering) industry that single-handedly monopolized the state’s economy has left the landscape devastated and many of its residents without a reliable source of income.
Dennison, 30, is a central character in the film. His nonprofit, which he founded in 2010 after leaving Shepherdstown and returning to Wayne, is taking on the overwhelming mission of preparing West Virginia and its residents to transition to a post-coal economy. Called the Coalfield Development Corporation, Dennison’s organization trains and employs young people and former mine workers across five social enterprises, which focus on construction (especially affordable housing), minefield remediation, arts and culture projects, sustainable agriculture, and solar energy initiatives. Through a 33-6-3 model—33 hours of paid work per week, six hours of classroom time toward an associates’ degree, three hours of life skills—Coalfield Development has trained around 50 West Virginians in new careers, launched five new businesses, and redeveloped over 150,000 square feet of dilapidated property.
Since production on From the Ashes began in 2014, the debate over the future of coal in the U.S. has swung drastically. Under the Obama administration, the Clean Power Plan, introduced in 2015, set the country on a path toward phasing out coal power plants and transitioning to renewable energy. Donald Trump has now pledged to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, claiming instead that he will bring back the use of what he calls “clean, beautiful coal” and put the over 191,000 miners who have lost their jobs since 2014 back to work in the coalfields.
While Katherine Oliver, the digital and media strategies principal for Bloomberg Philanthropies and the producer on From The Ashes, tells Fast Company that working on the film amid these transitions was rather like navigating a terrain constantly shifting under their feet (between the film’s global premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and its screening in Shepherdstown in June, the production team had to add a line at the end testifying to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord), the timing of its release, Oliver says, “is serendipitous. The public at large is talking about this issue, and it’s important for viewers to have this window into the public health, environmental, and economic impacts of the coal industry.”
The ascendancy of Donald Trump and his promise to revive the disintegrating coal industry has struck organizers like Dennison personally. In 2016, Coalfield Development Corporation received a $1,870,000 grant through the Obama administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative, developed through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) specifically to fund and support programs like Coalfield Development that are working to assist communities affected by job losses in coal mining by transitioning them to new economies. Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate the ARC, and consequently, the POWER Initiative—a clear indication of his intent revert to coal and ignore the warnings about the industry’s harmful effects that are so effectively spelled out in From The Ashes.
In Shepherdstown, though, it’s possible to see a new path forward for West Virginia, regardless of the Trump administration’s retrograde promises. Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative and another prominent character in From The Ashes, lives in town: In the film, she details her agency’s work of organizing successful efforts to close 256 coal-powered plants across the country; another 267 remain open. In the backyard of The Meckelenburg Inn, Shepherdstown’s iconic bar, she sits down with Dennison and Dan Conant, a local and the founder of Solar Holler—West Virginia’s first solar energy social enterprise, whose slogan is “Mine the Sun”—while the Meck’s six-month-old solar panels glint on the bar’s roof.
If there’s hope for West Virginia to move beyond coal and toward renewable energy, it will come from people like Conant, who in 2015 teamed up with Dennison and Coalfield Development to grow his team of solar installers across the state. Solar Holler, whose goal it is to bring solar energy to local nonprofits, is up to six full-time installers and another eight part-time, who have passed the training and certification course offered through Coalfield Development’s program. Conant oversees around one or two solar installs per week and receives around a dozen from West Virginia nonprofits interested in the model.
Because West Virginia is a regulated state, and undeniably monopolized by the coal industry, Conant has had to be creative in his approach. The genesis of Solar Holler, Conant tells me, was Shepherdstown Presbyterian—the same church where Dennison had served as youth minister. A noted progressive church, it was interested in switching to solar energy, but as a nonprofit, it couldn’t take advantage of the tax credit, which is the biggest incentive for installing solar. So Solar Holler—which at the time in 2014, was essentially just Conant—attempted to do a power purchase agreement with the church, whereby Conant’s organization would own the solar system installed on Shepherdstown Presbyterian, and collect tax credits on behalf of the church. “That’s how it’s done in 25 states, but when we attempted to do that here, we got shut down by the West Virginia government for violating the monopoly of the electric utilities,” Conant says.
He persisted, and circumvented the state by partnering with the Maryland-based Mosaic Power, which creates virtual power grids by outfitting electric water heaters with remote controls, which synchronizes with grid demand and sells excess electricity (generated by switching the water heaters on and off in accordance with demand, instead of just letting them run continuously) to the grid. Conant convinced 100 homes and businesses in Shepherdstown to let Solar Holler and Mosaic install the remotes on their water heaters and registered the resulting network as a power plant on the regional grid; the profits from the “virtual power plant” selling its energy to the grid funded Shepherdstown Presbyterian’s solar panels. “By doing that we got outside state jurisdiction,” Conant says. Solar Holler used this virtual power plant system to fund four systems for nonprofits in the state—including one at Coalfield Developments’ headquarters in Wayne, where three active coal mines have closed since 2010.
When the solar installation went up in Wayne, which is, Dennison says, “where coal country starts,” he was surprised by the reaction. A solar company, run by a millennial from Shepherdstown–which is sometimes dismissively referred to as “Washington, D.C.” by the rest of the state for how different and removed from the coalfields it feels—coming in and installing a renewable energy system hot on the heels of the area’s coal plant closures? It could have been a recipe for resentment—and for many miners, the ones who left the town, it was–but instead, Dennison saw enthusiasm. “Miners want to do that kind of hands-on work,” Dennison says. “Solar fits right into that.”
But there is a generational divide, and it’s one that has been exploited in the coal-mining narrative popularized by the Trump administration. The image of the old miner put out of work by regulation and the incursion of renewable energy and cheap natural gas is the one that illustrated his campaign and continues to serve as the mouthpiece for Trump’s pro-coal agenda. There’s not enough talk about the Dennisons or the Conants or the Natalie Ropers—a friend of Dennison and Conant and the executive director of Generation West Virginia, which is working to develop economic opportunities for young people in the state.
They are, in part, who Bloomberg Philanthropies wants to shift the conversation toward in producing From the Ashes. The documentary is the first full-length feature produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies; production began on the film in 2014 when, Oliver says, it became clear to the nonprofit that the format could act as a way to connect audiences “with facts and solutions and a data-driven approach to a misunderstood topic.” The film tells the story of aging miners and coal communities, but its focus is on solutions, and where the hope spots are. “We wanted to get that activist community on the screen to show what it will take to make change,” says Antha Williams, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ environmental programming director. “It’s consistent with our approach of supporting local solutions and scaling up efforts when we find something that works.”
The screening in Shepherdstown was one of dozens of “grassroots” screenings of the film organized by the Sierra Club to both raise awareness of the issues around the coal industry, and to give people a way to directly support organizations like Coalfield Development, and through that, Conant’s work with Solar Holler. As Coalfied Development stands to lose its funding at the hands of Trump’s cuts to the POWER initiative, “What can we do to help?” is one of the questions that have followed each of the grassroots screening. In Shepherdstown, where the personal connections to these organizations run deep, the concern is particularly palpable. In anticipation of this concern, Michael Bloomberg has pledged to personally match every donation made through the From the Ashes website to such coal transition initiatives.
“We’re in a situation that feels like a race against time,” Conant says. Even though life in Shepherdstown, he says, can feel isolated from the rest of the state, the economic struggles—particularly cuts to the state education department, which is planning to lay off 50 people—are universally felt in West Virginia. “We’ve got to act now to build up other industries, and it can’t just be one thing because that’s what got us here in the first place.”
And what’ll drive the state in that direction are the people and places often left out of the zeitgeist discussion of West Virginia. “That’s the hopeful part of this story,” Dennison says. “There’s this movement of people like Dan, other young people, that really love this place.” They’re clear-eyed about the problems, he adds—it’s lost on neither Conant nor Dennison that transitioning a state that at one time, had nearly half of its population working in the mines, toward a new economy will necessitate some growing pains—but the people doing this work see potential for West Virginia to represent something beyond the coal industry. West Virginia has a long history of losing young people to other industries in other states; the ones that remain, like Conant and Dennison, are here “because we really think that what we’re doing could work,” Conant says. “We have a gorgeous little corner of the world here that we’re trying to keep alive.”