BENHAM, Ky. —Inside the Kentucky Coal Museum, visitors can peruse plenty of memorabilia on mining and the commonwealth's coal camps. But on the roof, they'll find a display dedicated to an unexpected industry: Solar power.
In a cost-saving move, this museum in eastern Kentucky is embracing the sun as a source of affordable energy and installing approximately 80 solar panels on its roof.
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 like, 'This might be coal country, but I cannot afford $600 a month.' And that’s for a home," he said. "If it’s a business, God be with them, (the bills are) in the thousands.”
Bluegrass Solar and an Indiana-based company called Star Solar are working together on the project, according to a news release from Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, the museum's owner. The coal museum's electric bill typically costs about $2,100 per month, but this initiative is expected to save between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.
About 50 solar panels already have been installed on the museum's roof, Sexton said. Once the rest are in place, the system should be able to generate about 60 kilowatts of electricity when it's running at maximum capacity.
This solar project won't solely benefit the museum. It's also expected to benefit the small city of Benham, which is home to the coal museum as well as approximately 500 residents.
The Benham Power Board, which is a municipal utility, will be able to save money by using the energy the museum's panels generate through an agreement with the college, according to Brandon Robinson, the college's communications director.
It might seem odd for a town that once was "one of the Cadillac coal camps" to embrace solar power, according to Carl Shoupe, a member of the Benham Power Board. But he said local officials have welcomed new ideas.
"They’re willing to sit down and talk about things and be open-minded about this kind of change," Shoupe said. "We're just trying to create our own help."
Putting solar panels on the roof of the coal museum is just one part of Benham's energy project, which is expected to cost between $400,000 and $500,000 and is being funded through philanthropic donations, according to Robinson. Plans to establish two more local solar-panel sites are in the works as well.