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.

SEE ALSO: Interior Dept. agency changes website from family visiting park to a giant pile of coal

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.

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.

14 PHOTOS
Coal mining in West Virginia and Appalachia
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Coal mining in West Virginia and Appalachia
The rocky landscape shows some of the last sections to be mined for coal at the Hobet site in Boone County, West Virginia, U.S. May 12, 2016. To match Special Report USA-COAL/HOBET REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A Caterpillar Inc. front loader scoops coal from a mound at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal waits to be among the last shipments to be loaded on train cars to depart the Hobet mine in Boone County, West Virginia, U.S. May 12, 2016. Picture taken May 12, 2016. To match Special Report USA-COAL/HOBET REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ice patches sit on a mound of coal at the Arch Coal Inc. Sentinel Prep Plant in Philippi, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Arch, the St. Louis-based holder of the second-largest reserve of coal in the U.S., filed for creditor protection Monday, with an agreement to erase $4.5 billion in debt. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Coal spills out from a tower into a large pile at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Radio channel signs are posted beside a large mound of coal at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A mound of coal sits outside an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. filed for bankruptcy in Virginia last week, becoming the latest victim of the coal industrys worst downturn in decades. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Views of a radically altered natural environment in southern West Virginia due to extensive mountain top removal coal mining and logging. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Views of a radically altered natural environment in southern West Virginia due to extensive mountain top removal coal mining and logging. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
WISE COUNTY, VA - APRIL 16: A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operations continue in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012 in Wise County, Virginia. Critics refer to this type of mining as 'mountaintop removal mining' which has destroyed 500 mountain peaks and at least 1,200 miles of streams while leading to increased flooding. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WISE COUNTY, VA - APRIL 16: A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operations are seen in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012 in Wise County, Virginia. Critics refer to this type of mining as 'mountaintop removal mining' which has destroyed 500 mountain peaks and at least 1,200 miles of streams while leading to increased flooding. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 16 : West Virginia Patriot mining operations at the Guston strip mine just outside of Starcity West Virginia on August 16, 2010. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 16 : West Virginia Patriot mining operations at the Guston strip mine just outside of Starcity West Virginia on August 16, 2010. Seen here is an example of land that has been reclamed and land that is still being mined. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images)
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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.

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