Colorado's Delta County is named after a delta of arable land in the western Rocky Mountains, formed by the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers. In recent years, however, it has also embodied another meaning of its name: the Greek letter delta, used in math and science as a symbol for change.

The economy of Delta County has long been led by agriculture and mining, but both industries have undergone notable changes lately. Drought and extreme weather events have taken a toll on many local farms and forests, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while one of the county's three coal mines closed in 2013, followed by another in 2016.

The mine closures alone were "catastrophic," according to a 2019 report by the Resource Legacy Fund, a nonprofit conservation group. Delta County went from 701 mining jobs in 2012 to 107 in 2016, a loss of more than 80%.

"Unlike some places that have a more gradual off-ramp or predictable decline, these mine closures came suddenly and significantly, allowing for little advance planning or preparation for what would come next," the report explained.

They were part of a broader decline in coal mining across the country, driven largely by cheap natural gas, which emits less carbon than coal, and the growing affordability of renewable energy. That decline is almost certainly a good thing overall, given the dangers of both mining and burning coal, but the short-term effects can also upend communities whose fates remain tethered to the coal industry.

Despite the urgency of phasing out fossil fuels, this highlights the need for a "just transition" in communities that rely on them. Many environmental groups agree, framing social justice as part of shifting "from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy," as the Climate Justice Alliance puts it.

And while Delta County was rocked by the abrupt loss of two coal mines, it's also emerging as an example of how to adapt after such an ordeal. There is no universal definition or template for a just transition, but that doesn't mean these communities can't learn from each other. And as this rural county works to build a more "regenerative" economy, one program in particular stands out: At Delta High School, students in this longtime coal-mining hub — including some children of former coal miners — are now being trained for jobs in solar energy.

On the bright side

Delta County Bank Building in Delta, Colorado Delta reportedly has one of the highest potentials for solar power in Colorado. (Photo: Jeffrey Beall [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

Delta County is trying to diversify its economy, and with state and federal help, hired a consultant to create an economic development plan. It has already seen growth in industries like health care, real estate, accommodation and food services, according to the Resource Legacy Fund (RLF) report, some of which dates back even before the mine closures. There is also a focus on tourism, outdoor recreation and organic farming, and as NPR reports, one broadband company has retrained and hired more than 80 miners to lay fiber optic cable.

The county may be growing less reliant on its coal deposits, but it is paying more attention to another local energy source: sunlight. Delta has one of the highest potentials for solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity in the state, according to NOAA, and since so few mining jobs now await students after graduation, a teacher at Delta High is preparing his students to capitalize on their hometown's solar potential instead.

With help from NOAA's Planet Stewards Education Project and the local nonprofit Solar Energy International (SEI), science teacher Ben Graves is teaching students "all phases of solar electric design and installation," according to NOAA, hoping to help his community adapt to a changing climate and economy. "Reinvention starts with generating community awareness, changing attitudes, and providing opportunities to master new skills through hands-on technical training," Graves tells NOAA.

solar panel and students at Delta High School in Colorado Students pose with a solar array at Delta High School. (Photo: Ben Graves/NOAA Planet Stewards)

That hands-on training is a key part of the curriculum. On top of learning how to design and install solar panels, his students put those lessons to use by building a solar array in the school's Solar PV Lab Yard. Students lead every stage of the process, planning the layout of the panels, diagramming the wiring and installing the array. They also collect data on the panels' performance and try to maximize production across different seasons. In the 2017-2018 class, students laid groundwork for future solar installations, NOAA reports, both at their school and around the community.

Graves started the class four years ago, as Nick Bowlin reports for High Country News, and in that time his students have already installed two solar arrays behind their school. That kind of experience goes a long way in both capturing their interest and helping them learn, but as Graves explains, it also helps prepare them for life in a community that has changed dramatically in just one generation. Some of Graves' students are the children of coal miners, including one senior whose father lost his job as a foreman when the Bowie Mine near Paonia closed in 2016.

"Now," Bowlin writes, "he'll graduate as a certified solar panel installer."

Time for a change

highway sign in Delta, Colorado U.S. Route 50 is one of the main highways through Delta, Colorado. (Photo: Jeffrey Beall [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

Many of Graves' students are kids who didn't thrive in the environment of traditional science classes, he says, but this format lets them approach STEM education from a different angle. At the same time, it can give them valuable skills and career momentum before they graduate. "I think we have to be doing some sort of trades education," Graves tells Bowlin. "For a kid with a high school diploma, working service is really all you can do without more training."

And students aren't the only ones who stand to benefit. Public schools lost tax revenue when the mines closed, Bowlin points out, but training students to build and install solar panels could help them save money. Delta High School's solar panels reportedly meet about 10% of its energy demand on a typical school day, and up to 30% on weekends. The school can't install any more solar arrays due to a municipal cap, Bowlin notes, but the ones it has are already making a difference. And not only is Graves' class continuing, but the idea is poised to take off.

Solar power is popular in Delta County, a politically conservative community that apparently diverges from many national Republicans on the subject, instead focusing on the conservative values inherent to cheap, decentralized and renewable energy. The local electric cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), is already working to shift from coal to renewable energy, thanks to a 2018 vote in which members opted to buy out their contract with a wholesale power provider that limited how much solar power they could produce locally. In addition to giving local residents more independence and self-sufficiency, Bowlin notes that using more renewable energy could also help DMEA cut costs for customers.

aerial view of Delta, Colorado An aerial view of Delta and its namesake river intersection. (Photo: Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

After the 2017-2018 class project, Graves successfully lobbied DMEA to support solar installations at all high schools in Delta County, according to NOAA. DMEA has administered grants for Graves' class, Bowlin adds, and funds solar training for teachers in the area. The program is still small, but its profile is quickly rising, both at Delta High and beyond. A similar program has also begun at nearby Paonia High in Delta County, according to SEI, which has played a role in the efforts at both schools. And 10 teachers from nearby counties finished a professional-development program in 2018 to bring solar technology into their classrooms, NOAA reports, with more expected to follow in the near future.

Of course, aside from the benefits a project like this can offer students, schools and their community, it also supports a much broader need for renewable energy to curb climate-altering emissions from fossil fuels. In 2018 alone, for example, the efforts of Graves and his students prevented 1.38 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, according to NOAA. That may be just a drop in the bucket in terms of global climate change, but every little bit helps. And it's a big deal for Delta County, where solar panels symbolize a changing relationship with change itself.

"The student-built array is a visible reminder to the community and its leadership that solar electricity is a viable way to reduce the community's energy demand," Graves says, "while having a positive impact on climate change, saving money in the long run, and transforming the community into a renewable energy hub."

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Rural community that lost two coal mines is now teaching kids to install solar panels
A program in Colorado's Delta County aims to ensure a brighter future for the next generation.