A coal museum in Kentucky looks to an unlikely power source



The tiny town of Benham, Kentucky, was originally built to serve the coal mining industry—and now it's embracing solar energy.

Benham, population 500, will soon get an array of solar panels atop the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. Built in 1994, the museum is filled with relics from Kentucky's coal mining past, including early mining tools, photographs, and a two-ton block of coal. Country music legend Loretta Lynn, who sang "Coal Miner's Daughter," has housed part of her personal collection on the museum's third floor.

The decision to go solar is packed with symbolism, but mostly it just made financial sense, the museum's owners said.

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The solar panels could cut the museum's energy costs by between $8,000 and $10,000 a year, Brandon Robinson, a spokesman for Southeast Community and Technical College, which owns the museum, told reporters last week.

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In the U.S. and globally, solar and wind power prices are plummeting as technologies improve and projects reach economies of scale. In 2016, investors built a record amount of renewable energy for less money than in previous years.

Energy analysts say those trends will only accelerate in coming years—even as President Donald Trump begins unraveling U.S. policies to address climate change and boost clean energy.

Trump has also vowed to revitalize the long-suffering American coal industry, though even mining executives say that's not likely to happen, given the stiff competition from natural gas and renewable energy.

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"Despite the changes in tone from the new administration, we think solar and wind will expand in the U.S.," said Angus McCrone, chief editor of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

"All signs are that's going to continue," he said by phone from London.

The coal museum's solar rooftop doesn't mean this Appalachian town is bucking the black rock that's long been central to its history and economic fate. At its peak, Benham had about 3,000 residents, until coal industry jobs began to dwindle.

"Coal is still king around here," Robinson, the museum spokesman, told Eastern Kentucky news channel WYMT.

However, the solar switch does show how renewable energy is gaining acceptance in Appalachia and far beyond as it becomes more affordable for homeowners and businesses.

"The people here are sort of in awe of this solar thing," Wanda Humphrey, Benham's 85-year-old mayor, told the Associated Press.