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As our leaders invest in an economic recovery from COVID-19, we have the opportunity to create jobs and reduce pollution through investment in American clean energy.

Before the pandemic, clean energy was one of the nation’s strongest sectors, growing 70% faster than the economy as a whole. There are opportunities for clean energy advancement here in West Virginia, too.

I know about this growth firsthand. I grew up in Dickenson County, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachian coal country. Generations of my family mined coal in this area, including my dad. When my mother suddenly found herself a single mom with two little kids in her care, she took a job at Pizza Hut, making $2.16 an hour (plus tips). She did this while taking night classes until she landed a job as an operator for a company that ultimately was bought out by Verizon.

It was a good job for the area, perhaps one of the best for someone without a college degree. We had health insurance, and my mom was a member of the labor union Communications Workers of America. As an 11-year-old, I recall her donning a T-shirt with the letters “CWA” and joining a picket line. I was so proud.

My mom’s fortitude continues to inspire me today. The dignity and security of that job represents what I want for my fellow West Virginians. I am the owner of a solar business now, but my path has been anything but easy. I attended Berea College on a full scholarship but had to withdraw after a string of tragic events set my family back. In 2014, I found myself a single mother of two toddlers, moving back to my hometown of Clintwood, Virginia.

The best job I could find was as an Applebee’s server. I was paid $2.16 an hour (plus tips), just as my mom had earned. I came back to a region that was suffering from the decline of the coal industry, and what I saw made me determined to advocate for economic development beyond coal.

The jobs that have been lost from the decline of coal cannot be replaced with a call center or a prison, although that is what we were offered. I took a different path. I found a job with Solar Holler, a West Virginia-based company where I learned about solar installation. In 2019, I became a licensed general contractor and co-founded Revolt Energy to pursue large-scale solar installations. By early 2020, business was taking off.

Then the pandemic nearly shut us down. But thanks to cautious budgeting and a Paycheck Protection Program loan, we were able to resume operations quickly, creating 10 full-time jobs last year. We unionized our workforce through IBEW Local 466. And, although we did not fit the criteria for the second round of COVID-19 relief loans, we would hire and train several more people if we had the resources.

Demand for solar and other clean energy will only increase, and that’s good news for our communities. By embracing clean energy, we help our families secure good-paying jobs and their health — a win-win for everyone. Yet, we must ensure that West Virginians are reaping the full benefits of this boon and unlocking our job creation potential as a state.

Let me explain. As of now, large solar projects are typically awarded to out-of-state companies, mirroring our coal-country experience, whereby profits from local jobs migrate out of state, to the detriment of local economies. It does not have to be this way.

When my company builds a ground-mount solar array, we go to McNeil Fence Co. (in Charleston) for the frame. We get supplies and equipment from State Electric (in Huntington). When Revolt Energy installs solar, our entire community reaps the benefits.

This month, Revolt Energy is deploying one of the largest commercial solar projects ever executed in our state, right here in Nitro. This is proof positive that local businesses can deftly handle large-scale projects.

But here is the kicker, we need support, so that business owners do not look out of state for solar installers. We need the state Legislature to enact a renewable-portfolio standard that puts West Virginia-owned businesses first in line for projects in our state.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has always been a strong advocate for bringing new jobs to West Virginia and, for that, we should be grateful. But more is needed, across all levels of government, to ensure West Virginians are not left behind as the coal industry continues its decline. We need meaningful investments in growing energy industries, like solar and wind, incentives and support for clean energy businesses to open in West Virginia, and state and federal policies that promote energy innovation.

With our ingenuity and work ethic propelling us forward, we can make the most of our clean energy potential and put West Virginians to work.

Keena Mullins is a co-owner of Revolt Energy and a member of Moms Clean Air Force in West Virginia. She lives in Charleston with her husband and their four children.

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