Benham is a small town in Harlan County, Kentucky. It was founded as a coal camp by International Harvester in the early 20th century. During a year my father taught science at the local school (which is now a hotel), I was born in the company clinic. At the time, my grandfather managed the company store, which is now the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. The town has replaced coal mining with tourism as its most prominent business, and now it's even replacing coal as its energy source. The coal mining museum is installing 80 solar panels on its roof to provide light and heat for the building.
Tre' Sexton said he was surprised when his company, Bluegrass Solar, was approached about the project. If there was one building in eastern Kentucky that wouldn't have a solar-power system, you'd think it would be the coal museum, he said.
“Really the first time that I sat down and was talking about it with everybody, I was like...are you for real? They’re really going to go for this?” Sexton said. “I mean, 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.”
But putting solar panels on top of the coal museum makes sense economically, Sexton said. Public attractions like this one can't be profitable if they're dealing with expensive electric bills every month. And people in eastern Kentucky are becoming more interested in alternative energy options.
It's a sign of the times. Local officials welcome the idea. When the solar panel system is completed, any excess energy gathered will be fed back into the grid, which will benefit Benham's 500 or so residents.