Back in September 2014, the CEO of one of America's largest coal producers exclaimed that "you're smoking dope" if you think the U.S. coal industry is coming back. Such sentiments have only proliferated since then. Indeed, after the signing of a far-reaching international agreement on climate change in Paris, the head of Europe's coal lobby has suggested that the industry will be "hated and vilified in the same way that slave-traders were once hated and vilified."

There's a very real sense that fossil fuels — and coal in particular — will have to brace for a long period of decline and eventual irrelevance.

While alternatives and wind and solar will no doubt create jobs and economic opportunity in many regions, the question remains: What becomes of the workers who once relied on coal or oil for survival?

Brandon Dennison, director of the Coalfield Development Corporation, believes he may have part of the answer. Having returned to his native West Virginia, Dennison has been confronting daunting social problems like unemployment, drug addiction and widespread poverty. But Dennison sees opportunity in the remnants of the once great coal industry itself. Starting with the many empty buildings created by bankruptcies and the migration of workers out of the area, Dennison has created an innovative model of social entrepreneurship, using architectural reclamation and furniture making to fund well-paying jobs, training opportunities and life skills coaching to unemployed youth in former coal mining towns. Dennison describes the program — and its transformative effect — in the video below.

But these reclamation activities are just one part of a much broader vision. Under the banner of Reclaim Appalachia, Coalfield Development Corporation is renovating a former garment factory into collaborative studio space and residences for local artists, and having just been awarded the J.M. Kaplan Fund Prize for Innovation, Dennison is hinting at bigger things to come.

In a fascinating interview with NPR's Here and Now, Dennison revealed that his organization is now looking at how to reclaim former mountaintop removal sites and turn them into assets. From solar and wind energy projects to soil regeneration and agriculture, Dennison says there are many ways to grow something positive out of an industry whose time may be winding down.

Of course, one organization by itself isn't going to solve the problems of former oil and coal towns. But with reports that tar sands regions are now experiencing similar spikes in unemployment and suicide — a toll that coal country is already familiar with — there will be many people watching to see how communities navigate their way into a lower-carbon future.

How we can turn Coal Country around
As fossil fuels decline, the need for alternative economic models becomes more important than ever.