Future of the Coal Industry in Kentucky

Nathan Spielberg
December 1, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2018


Fig. 1: An early coal mine in Kentucky from 1900. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Coal has been found in Kentucky since the arrival of early settlers and explorers. Use of coal increased in the 18th century, with the opening of surface mines and wider distribution (see Fig. 1). [1] Since then, generations of families in eastern Kentucky have worked in the coal industry, mining coal. [2]

With the recent decline in coal as a dominant fuel for the use in electric power in the United States, the industry has lost more than 49,000 jobs. [3] The loss of these jobs is influenced by both the viability of natural gas as a cheap alternative fuel source and the increase in cost of extracting coal in eastern Kentucky. [4] As may be seen in Fig. 2, U.S. coal consumption since 1950 has almost doubled while natural gas consumption increased close to five fold. [5] In addition to the influence of natural gas, pressure from government regulations from Washington and environmentalists has changed the climate of the nation's energy producers. [4]

Alternative Energy and Industry Options

With this pressure, some plants have ceased to utilize coal as a power source. The decline in coal plants is evidenced by the 20% of 500 coal plants in the United States that are expected to cease to produce energy in the next few years. [2] The drive away from coal-based power in eastern Kentucky has created opportunities for new energy initiatives, such as renewable energy based approaches. Large companies such as Berkeley Energy Group have aimed to create the largest solar complex in the state of Kentucky in a strip mine, estimating power production of 100 megawatts and investing $100 million. [6] These initiatives not only provide an alternative option to power production in Kentucky, they also provide opportunities for workers from the coal industry to pursue a new occupation in another energy sector. The move to solar power can also be shown by the recent installation of a 33,000 panel solar field by the East Kentucky Power Co-Op on its own property. [4]

Fig. 2: Overview of U.S. production and consumption, 1949-2017, of coal (top) and natural gas (bottom). [5] (Courtesy of the EIA)

Other industry options for the coal industry have also been proposed since the decline in coal production. In Pikeville, Kentucky on a reclaimed surface mine outside of town an agriculture startup named AppHarvest has created a high tech greenhouse to provide multiple varieties of tomatoes, creating jobs for the region and repurposing coal related infrastructure. [4] Another alternative industry option is to switch from mining coal to mining rare earth elements. [6] Mining these elements would not only provide jobs to the mining workers but also help diversify the regions industry opportunities. Despite the pushes to diversify the heavily focused coal industry in Kentucky and move to renewable resources, challenges still exist from a policy perspective.

Challenges and Conclusion

Despite the move to solar power, lawmakers are urging constituents in Kentucky to support bills that actively roll back incentives for solar power. [7] Similarly large organizations support lobbying groups that play an active role in lobbying against bills that promote the benefits of solar power usage in Kentucky including obtaining credits from excess energy production from the solar cells. [7] With the future of the coal industry uncertain, Kentucky is in the midst of a shift to renewable energy as well as a focus on new industrial options to grow the regions economy.

© Nathan Spielberg. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] L. H. Harrison, New History of Kentucky, (The University of Kentucky Press, 2018).

[2] E. Lipton, "Even in Coal Country, the Fight for an Industry," New York Times, 29 May 12.

[3] D. Haerer and L. Pratson, "Employment Trends in the U.S. Electricity Sector, 2008- 2012," Energy Policy 82, 85 (2015).

[4] A. Campo-Flores, "Hit Hard by Coal's Decline, Eastern Kentucky Turns to Drones, Tomatoes, Solar Energy," Wall Street Journal, 23 May 17.

[5] "Monthly Energy Review - November 2018," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0035(2018/11), November 2018.

[6] Z. Basu, "In the Heart of Country, State Officials Bet on Renewable Energy," CNBC, 18 Jul 17.

[7] J. Bruggers, "Solar Power in Kentucky Is Threatened. This Is Who's Behind the Push to Crush It," Louisville Courier Journal, 1 Feb 18.