As the coal industry continues to decline, much has been written about what can be done for coal-dependent communities. From architectural reclamation in the heart of coal country to coal mines being mined for geothermal heat, we've already seen several examples of how new and more sustainable industries can arise from the (coal) ashes. Now a startup in Pikeville, Kentucky, is adding a different alternative to the list. Bit Source is turning coal miners into Web programmers.

Here's how the company describes its mission on its website:

"A convergence of several events has brought on a new normal for coal mining regions. We have accepted that a change is necessary and we are moving forward looking to re-invent. Now there is both challenge and opportunity. Our workforce once exported coal from the region to provide for our families. Currently, an effort is underway to re-purpose our workforce. This workforce is a pool of intelligent men and women possessing proven abilities with a strong work ethic. Our adoption of technology, specifically web and software development, will bring about a new day, a new way."

A highly skilled workforce

The Lexington Herald Leader has a fascinating profile of Bit Source and the former coal miners who are working for it. In the same way that many oil geologists and other fossil fuel defectors find themselves well-placed to contribute to the new clean energy economy, the engineering skills and work ethic exhibited by many coal miners are equally applicable to the industries of the Internet age.

Still, prejudices about uneducated coal mining communities persist. What's fascinating about the Lexington Herald Leader article is how the company's co-founder, Rusty Justice, directly tackles and even subverts those prejudices — proudly proclaiming “we’ve got a lot of high-skilled hillbillies here.”

Infrastructural challenges remain

Of course, building a new high-tech industry is not without its challenges, especially in a region with some of the slowest Internet speeds in the country. But new initiatives are stepping in to fix that problem too, bringing miles and miles of high-speed fiber-optic Internet to coal country. Justice explains that Bit Source aims to put the skills in place in the community, so when fiber does arrive, it doesn't turn out to be a "bridge to nowhere."

As someone who has written about and advocated for the transition away from coal, I doubt Justice and I would see eye-to-eye regarding the issues of climate change, energy politics, et cetera. But I do believe that environmental advocates like myself have a moral responsibility to engage with and help resolve the issue of what comes next for the regions that have previously supplied the electricity we all rely on in our daily lives. But that engagement must be based on respect.

Challenging elitist stereotypes

In a separate article about Bit Source on Backchannel, Justice provides a prime example of how even environmentalists' concern for coal miners can come off as hollow and classist if it's not based on a genuine understanding of, and respect for, the communities we profess to care about. Referring to anti-coal billionaire Michael Bloomberg's comments that “you’re not going to teach a coal miner to code,” Justice credits those words with spurring him into action and setting out to prove Bloomberg wrong:

“It touched every button of every stereotype you can put on us, that we’re not smart and can’t do things and are pitiful and all that,” Justice told me. “It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull’s face.”

Whether or not you support Bloomberg's crusade against coal, it's easy to understand how such a blanket statement about what coal miners can or cannot learn would come across as both tone deaf and patronizing, especially in a community that feels besieged by economic and cultural forces beyond its control.

And it's a powerful reminder to us all: The transition to a clean energy economy will be that much more successful if we don't overlook the incredible human capital (and in real-world speak, I mean "people") previously engaged in supplying fossil fuels.

As coal declines, miners take up coding
A new startup in Kentucky aims to turn coal miners into web programmers.