Change in the Coalfields: A Podcast by Coalfield Development

Dan Conant

May 26, 2022 Coalfield Development Season 2 Episode 4
Change in the Coalfields: A Podcast by Coalfield Development
Dan Conant
Show Notes Transcript

Original intro/outro music: 
"'Till I See Stars" by The Parachute Brigade

John F. Kennedy:

The sun does not always shine in West Virginia but the people always do and I'm delighted to be here.

Brandon Dennison:

These are historic times in Appalachia. A lot has changed. A lot is changing now and a lot still needs to change. In our podcasts we talked with change makers right square in the middle of all this working to ensure the change is for the good. You're listening to change in the coalfields a podcast by Coalfield Development. I'm your host, Brandon Dennison. This is Change in the Coalfields, a podcast by Coalfield Development. My name is Brandon Dennison. I'm the CEO of Coalfield Development. This week is special. We have another CEO and another founder with us, Mr. Dan Conant, founder and CEO of Solar Holler, which has become a legendary company in West Virginia, in Appalachia and really in the country. The last time I saw Dan, he was in town because the Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm had come to learn more about solar holler and Coalfield Development and all the good work that's happening in clean energy here in West Virginia. So Dan, thanks for coming to the podcast.

Dan Conant:

Thanks for having me.

Brandon Dennison:

So, you are a proud West Virginian. Can you tell us where you were born, where you grew up, and maybe just how being a West Virginian, having a childhood in West Virginia has shaped you?

Dan Conant:

Sure thing so born and raised in Jefferson County, grew up with a Harper's Ferry mailing address, but for me that meant not being in the historical part but out in the woods outside of Harpers Ferry. Yeah, just spent, my entire childhood, all the way through high school in Jefferson County, playing in the woods, and hanging out on the mountain, as they called it, then went through Jefferson County Public Schools, go cougars! Yeah, and then went away for college before and bounced around the country for about 10 years before wanting to move on back home. So in 2013, I convinced my wife to let us move back to Shepherdstown 10 or 15 miles from where I grew up to launch solar holler. Yeah, definitely, born and bred West Virginia, and really proud of my Golden Horseshoe all these years later,

Brandon Dennison:

I share that in common with you that I never knew that. So go and get my nice spray painted wooden golden horseshoe. I have kept it to this day, I would wouldn't trade it.

Dan Conant:

Really proud of that. Yeah, for all of us. Even though we're on the other side of the state from Huntington and Wayne County, we were all my friends, we just kind of grew up just assuming we'd get out of West Virginia, like so many folks across the state. So, you know, sit around the lunch table, in high school, we just talked about how we're gonna get out and where we're gonna go, and all my friends ended up going to Boulder and Boston and like big cities all around the country. And at the time, I was joining in that course and didn't, it feels very funny, all these years later to have been the one to go back and start a company in West Virginia in the hometown, when we had all talked about getting out. So, but I think that ended up being, once I had more time to reflect on that and kind of coming out of college and missing home. I think that gave a lot of fire and motivation here was like, "Hey, I don't want it to be where kids growing up in West Virginia feel like they need to get out. I don't want us all scurrying away." So I've been really intentional and proud that we've been able to try to build up a new industry here and a company that would let us keep people at home. And honestly, sorry, I'm just on a roll now. In a weird way, it's been a, with COVID and pandemic made it easier for us to keep people in their hometowns, because for the first split seven years of our existence, it's it's, it turns out it's really hard to try to recruit people to come and work with you and live in a town of 1,500 people. No matter how cool Shepherdstown is, that was that was tough. And then when we went all remote in early 2020, we opened that up and said hey, we you can live anywhere you want in West Virginia, stay in your hometown, stay in your home holler (hollow) and just dial in and it's been really nice as a result. So like now we've got people working with us and Princeton and Oak Hill and Parkersburg and Fairmont and all over. So we've really been able to, you know, spread out and scatter scatter around our hollers (hollows) here, and I've been really, really proud of that move over the last couple of years.

Brandon Dennison:

So it's Harpers Ferry is that the one where the rivers come together and Thomas Jefferson said the view was worth the trip across the Atlantic or something to that effect.

Dan Conant:

It it is, it is so the Shenandoah flows into the Potomac. I know John Denver gets a lot of grief for how he wrote country roads. But it turns out it is very much a part of West Virginia, the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains added as my part of West Virginia. Through this little 15 to 20 mile sliver of Jefferson County, the Shenandoah flows north, runs into Potomac right there. Harpers Ferry, the town is where those two rivers come together and you've got these amazing bluffs and cliffs on either side. Virginia is right there, Maryland's right there and all three states come together at that point, and the bluffs are just overlooking the town. The whitewater is awesome, and then the entire town is actually set in the 1850s. So for the history buffs listening this will be old school, old news, but John Brown led raid in 1859 to take over the federal armory where they were making all the guns for the US military. And his plot or his plan was to take all the guns from the armory, arm slaves and create a renegade state in Appalachia for escaped slaves. So he and about I forget the exact number 15 others roughly including a bunch of his sons, because he had a huge family. He recruited all his sons and friends in and they raided at the town to do that. He got he got trapped in the firehouse Robert E. Lee, when he was still with the American army came in and squashed the raid, but as a result, we kind of kick started the Civil War in Harpers Ferry, and then the town changed.

Brandon Dennison:

That is major, major significant history.

Dan Conant:

Yeah, really, that sent all the southern states into a tizzy leading into the 1860 election really just like ignited the Civil War out of Harpers Ferry. And then during the war, you know, the b&o Railroad was running through where Virginia and Maryland are right there, it was a really hotly contested town, and so it changed hands 23 times over the course of the war, and it pretty it like, you know, before the wars about 5,000, folks, and then it got bombed out and went down to a couple of 100 folks after the war, but then, so tons of really interesting military and political history there, and now the entire town is a National Historical Park still set in the 1850s. My little sister worked there for seven years making hoop skirts every day, sewing hoop skirts. She was really good at it to doing living history. And it's a it's a gorgeous town with amazing buildings, amazing history. And so, and honestly, it's a gateway to West Virginia, like so so many folks from the East Coast come through there. And that's their first taste of West Virginia and they fall in love.

Brandon Dennison:

Absolutely, and clearly. I mean, you fell in love with that landscape, you talk about the woods and the rivers and there's something about West Virginians, I think we do tend to be very feel very connected to our landscape, right?

Dan Conant:

Yeah, it's a, you know, right across the road from where I grew up. There were a couple of 100 acres of woods that I was just wandered through all the time, like scrambling over creeks and then down the back hills that went up and down the hill. I was on the banks of the Shenandoah, and there were all these wildlife management areas around us. We were about a mile off the Appalachian Trail, growing up. So spent tons and tons of time just walking, walking the trail going to those shelters, I remember sitting in Harpers Ferry too, I remember sitting on the benches on the swinging benches at the outfitter, the little outdoor goods supply store, and it's the halfway point on the Appalachian Trail, and all the through hikers come through and it's you know, to stock up and more importantly for a 10 year old kid, share war stories of the bears that they fought off and and the holes they put in their shoes. So I just remember being in awe sitting there. Like as a 10 year old, just off on my own listening, listening to all these grizzled hiking vets coming off the trail. Yeah, I'm really, really attached to it. For the last decade, we've been living in Shepherdstown, which is about 10 miles up river, which is just a funky little town right on the Potomac.

Brandon Dennison:

A college town. We're gonna get to that piece here in a little bit. But as a kid, like Did you always want to start your own business? Did you always have that entrepreneurial fire? Did that come later in life?

Dan Conant:

Looking back on it now it all makes sense. But at the time, I wouldn't have said like, "Hey, I'm gonna be a entrepreneur, or I'm gonna start a business." Although I did start my first business in fourth grade, which was buying up, this is a kid of the 90s here, buying up sports pencils with the helmets on them.

Brandon Dennison:

I remember. Did you have the machine like you put a quarter in? You could buy one?

Dan Conant:

Uh huh, so, but I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna buy these in bulk. And then I'm gonna, like take out and then I'm gonna mark up all the pencils from people's favorite teams, and try to try to sell those." It ended in failure a couple of months in, but, but I had a lifetime supply of pencils on me after that.

Brandon Dennison:

You know, what do they say? Like only 5% of startups actually make it.

Dan Conant:

Right? Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So that was my first business venture. I also had a short lived venture where I was going to bottle up honeysuckle. And so I was taking the little honeysuckle buds one at a time dropped, dropped, dropped. I was gonna bottle that up. So yeah, that was elementary school for me. Now in high school, I thought about going into law. I thought about going into government. Yeah, I mean, at that point, I just knew I wanted to be involved in renewable energy, like even senior year of high school, freshman year of college, I knew I wanted to be in renewable energy.

Brandon Dennison:

Really, what made you what, what led to that clarity of purpose?

Dan Conant:

Unclear

Brandon Dennison:

Senior year of high school, that'd be like, what year?

Dan Conant:

2003?

Brandon Dennison:

Okay, so we understand we're starting to understand climate change by that point.

Dan Conant:

Yeah. So yeah, I was the geek in high school who had followed all the news and read the Kyoto Protocol, which was the first international climate agreement back in what 1997. So even sophomore, as soon as I got into high school, that was...

Brandon Dennison:

You know when we talk about the Paris Agreement. Copenhagen agreement, Kyoto was like, the first one.

Dan Conant:

Yeah, Kyoto. Yeah, there was Rio and 1992. And then Kyoto, and that was kind of like a more general one. Kyoto was the first time that all the countries of the world got together and said, "We're gonna tackle greenhouse gas emissions." The U.S. didn't ratify it, but that was, that was the first agreement. And the rest of the world ratified that back in 1997. I was thinking about that. Even way back when, so then I got into college, I was studying Environmental Science and International Politics, and looking at all this stuff. So I don't know when, I don't know exactly when or why. But like, really, you know, from all the way back then this was pretty clear that I was going to be in the space. Now, I didn't know I was going to start up a company or do exactly that. I just knew that this was the industry. Yeah, my mom was a software engineer coder. She was the yeah, especially back in the late 70s and early 80s. So she, well, I wouldn't say that but so she she had all that my dad built custom homes. So he was a mason and a carpenter, and built just gorgeous custom homes around Jefferson County, and was the foreman for a small little design and construction shop. So my first job as a kid was actually working, working construction with my dad, he was really defensive, though, he never actually let me touch the power tools that give me a broom and told me to sweep and take stuff out to the dump.

Brandon Dennison:

Starting from the ground floor, quite literally.

Dan Conant:

I know. I know, so I guess he didn't want a 12 year old with a circular saw. So yeah, so mom, a coder, dad, a construction guy. So in that context of kind of what we do now, like I do tons of software modeling for renewable energy so we can then go out and build stuff. So I'm kind of like mashing up my mashing up my parents there.

Brandon Dennison:

All the pieces of yourself, bringing them to full benefit. So where do you go to college?

Dan Conant:

Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, up near Erie, small, little, small, little school. My my dad drew a 300 mile radius around Harpers Ferry and told me I could go anywhere within that. And so I went to the one that was 299 miles away.

Brandon Dennison:

Do you know it's funny, that's partially why I went to Sheppard my parents basically said, "You can go anywhere you want, inside West Virginia where you pay in-state tuition. Shepherdstown was really about as far away as I could get, staying in state, and then I fell in love with it.

Dan Conant:

Yeah, so at Allegheny, they had an awesome Environmental Science program too, which is at the other end, but that's the main reason I wanted to go. So that was undergrad and then for grad school, went to Johns Hopkins University for...

Brandon Dennison:

Study in renewable energy?

Dan Conant:

Yeah they had an energy policy and technology program that I went through.

Brandon Dennison:

And then from there, you end up in Vermont?

Dan Conant:

Yeah, so after Allegheny really wanted to work in renewable energy. At that point, there were zero companies doing renewables or efficiency in West Virginia. So I started bouncing around the country a little bit, moved to Vermont, and did, well did a couple years in Vermont and a couple years in D.C., and launched, with a couple other folks, the largest solar company in Vermont, called Sun Common, and while I was in D.C., I was working for some forestry organizations while doing grad school at night, and yeah I had a lot of fun launching that got to launch in Sun Common, got to do some really cutting edge stuff, where I launched three of the first 10 community solar projects in the country, which is where lots of hubs get together and share the electricity from one system.

Brandon Dennison:

That might be interesting, just in case folks don't know. So like, that could be 10, 20, 30 homeowners go into an agreement to share one system, right? Is that sort of what that looks like.

Dan Conant:

Yeah, so like the initial ones we're doing, it's changed a little bit since then. But the initial ones were doing, a neighbor would have their land, and we'd put in a solar system on their barn or on their farm, and then work with four or five of their neighbors to split up the electricity credits. So on each person's bill, we'd split it up, where each one of them got 20% of the electricity credits to reduce their power bills, since then, it's grown a bunch. So you know, in some cases, it's 100, 150, 200 families all sharing a common system. At that point, there were only two states that allowed it, Colorado and Vermont, but now over 15 states have this kind of model now. And we're actually talking with a bunch of West Virginia legislators earlier this year and had a bill introduced to allow that in West Virginia to because turns out, not everyone has good roof or solar, like a lot depends on you know, do you have do you live in the middle of the woods? Do you rent? Are going to be moving in a couple of years? Just you know, there's there's reasons that people may not be able to go solar on their own homes, but if we can kind of work and, you know, find good spots or lease out a farmer's land or, you know, put some panels in a good spot and share the power, it ends up being a really cool setup for folks.

Brandon Dennison:

When and how did you decide? So you had this phenomenal, higher education backgroun, you've got skill sets, strengths, capabilities, to be a solar entrepreneur, you have this great experience of Vermont. When and how do you make the decision to say I'm going to start a solar company in West Virginia, which of the 50 states might possibly could be the hardest one in which to start a solar compan, one could argue I would imagine.

Dan Conant:

It was argued to me. Now I remember my bosses at the time, I told them I was going to be this is 2013 I told them I was going to be heading back home to start up start up a little company, and they sat me down and they're like, "Are you sure Dan? Are you sure? Because you're sounding insane right now." So they tried to talk me out of it. No, I was feeling homesick. You know, I always wanted to do this in West Virginia. It just mattered to me. And you know, even though it was still fairly early days, it was just feeling really easy up in up in New England. So, it was less about starting my own company, it wasn't it wasn't financial for me at all, it was like I want to be home doing this at home. And on top of that we were about to have our daughter, Lucy was about to be born and so I wanted to be closer to Grandma and Papa and have have them around. So just between all of that just feeling homesick.

Brandon Dennison:

More the heart in the head?

Dan Conant:

Totally. Definitely more heart than head there. Yeah, and 2013 applied for some grants got a start up grants that let me come home and start putting the pieces together here.

Brandon Dennison:

So, tell folks about your first project, and that's going to lead to how we met to actually, right?

Dan Conant:

Yeah, so my original vision for Solar Holler was, I wanted to, see this is gonna make it sound even crazier, I not only wanted to do this in West Virginia, and kickstart an industry here, I also wanted to work with nonprofits, because nonprofits always get left out. And they're insanely hard to finance.

Brandon Dennison:

Not exactly a entrepreneurs goldmine. Briefly, just for folks who are listening.

Dan Conant:

No, not so much. And so I was like, Yeah, let's, let's take the two hardest spaces in solar, West Virginia, and nonprofits and let's mash them all together. But like, ultimately, I like I didn't want solar to just be for rich people like this is a tool for keeping dollars in your community for not shipping it out to AEP every, every month, and every dollar we were able to save with nonprofits meant more for their actual programming and what they were born to do. So when I was originally starting up the company, I wanted Solar Holler to be a financing company for solar on churches and homeless shelters and other awesome community organizations around West Virginia. And so I moved back home, start talking, and get linked up with the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, which had been thinking about solar for a while wanted to want to figure it out, but just couldn't afford it at the time, so we hatched up a plan, Solar Holler was going to install the system for the church, we were going to cover all the costs, and the compan, as a for profit company would be able to take the tax credits that help support solar. But the church couldn't take those nonprofits because they don't pay any taxes in the first place. So unfortunately, the the way this works is that if you're if you're a homeowner or a business, you can you can get incentives from the federal government, if you're a school or a recovery clinic, or a homeless shelter, like "Sorry, you're out of luck." So the way around, this was Solar Holler was gonna install the system, to Like, if you care about free markets, a lot of times like what's called a Power Purchase Agreement, where we'd sell the power to the church, and we take all the tax rates behind the scenes and the church would pay less for their power than they were paying Potomac Edison. Well, that's that's all, you know, that is a tried and true model. It's done in about 25 states, I'm still convinced it was legal at the time. But the West Virginia Public Service Commission told me nuh uh, you can't do that only Potomac Edison has the right to sell power in Shepherdstown, and in Huntington, only AEP can sell power. So they were saying utilities have a monopoly, you cannot violate that. Even if it's not to sell power to folks across town, I was just trying to put in solar panels on a green industries are getting get criticized for, you know, church roof. So without that we lost access. needing federal subsidies and federal grants. But what about this traditional utility setup sounds like a free market, you know, to any of us? Yeah, the, the, the way it works in West Virginia is the utilities have an absolute monopoly on selling power in their territories. They get their rates set by the Public Service Commission. So customers can't shop around. But then the utility has their rates set by the government, and they get a guaranteed rate of return. They get guaranteed profits. They're the only company I've ever heard of that offers, yeah, get guaranteed profits of 10% on their the 10% return every year, no matter what. So they're the only ones like that when we got shut down when this project got shut down by the Public Service Commission. So the Public Service Commission said you can't sell power to the church. And when that happened, we lost access. We wouldn't be able to take those tax credits. We wouldn't be able to get the USDA grants, all that it just really hurt the economics of the project, especially nine years ago before panel prices have come down as much as they have now. So we went, I went back to the drawing board, and using that Johns Hopkins degree, we figured out a way to, instead of if we weren't going to be able to sell the power to the church, I said, fine, what's given away. And we went back to the drawing board and created a crowdfunding program where I never asked for a dime from anybody in town. Instead, I asked people to let me install a little remote control on their electric water heater. And we registered 100 water heaters in tiny little Shepherdstown, as a power plant hooked all these water heaters up to the internet, we're able to monitor them in real time and turn them on and off every two seconds with fluctuations of the voltage and frequency of the power grid. So traditionally, this service has been done by, you know, bigger power plants kind of going up and down, or big, pumped hydro. And we said, we can do this with water heaters in people's basements that are just sitting there. So we we set up this power plant, turning the water heaters on and off, on and off every two seconds, then just like little bits here and there. My wife, Laura was actually doing all the day trading on the water heaters, and took the revenue from this power plant and put it into a fund within Solar Holler. So we can give away solar systems to churches and homeless shelters and affordable housing groups and folks around the state. So that that first project would have cost the Presbyterian Church $55,000. Instead, we gave it to them for a buck, and all and instead it was paid for through this really obscure corner of the electricity market. And that was our very first project out of the gate. Back, we went live with that in summer of 2014. And I remember at the time going around and explaining what we're doing to folks in the, in the energy industry around the country. And they were all amazed that it was happening in small town in West Virginia. And not in not in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, it was like that we're doing it in a town of 1500 people in the mountains. That's how we got started. And then it was kind of off to the races from there. Once we had a big ribbon cutting and had 150 people out on a random Tuesday morning, in August to cut the ribbon. It was the big thing in the town going on. After that, like within four days, we've gotten flooded with hundreds and hundreds of folks around the state all saying hey, I want to go solar, I want to go to solar. And it turns out at that point, we didn't have the workforce and the state didn't have people to actually install this stuff. And we instantly knew there was demand, and that this is what people wanted. We just needed to build up all the all the skill sets and capacity and give folks a, give folks a chance to be a part of it. And that's when I met Brandon.

Brandon Dennison:

So Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, it's an amazing church is a very vibrant congregation, very committed to social, economic and environmental justice. And I was blessed to be the youth director at Shepardson Presbyterian Church when I was at college, in Shepherdstown. And I was I it's funny, probably soon after, you would have moved away from the area, I moved into the area. And then soon after I moved away from the area, you moved back to the area, we just sort of missed each other. But as you were sort of talking with friends at Shepherdstown Presbyterian saying, you know, we were really you have to develop the workforce for this and that you really wanted to do it throughout the rest of the state. A good friend of ours, Than and his wife, Mary Ann Hitt thought of me and Coalfield and put us in touch. And you reached out and I think you know, the first time we talked I could just [tell] immediately you were just clearly passionate and skilled and compassionate. I think I think it was a pretty quick yes to collaboration, right? Like you didn't have to sell me too hard on it.

Dan Conant:

It was it really was and you know, we had this problem we needed people doing this stuff, and well, turns out, you know, we had a lot of folks looking for work in the southern part of the state, especially in Mingo [County] and [Wayne] and at that point, mines were closing left and right, and, you know, we needed like from the very start, I wanted to make sure that we were piling as much good stuff into every project as possible. And, you know, here's this chance to build up a workforce and build up a new industry in West Virginia. Let's do it in the places that need the jobs. Let's do let's try to, you know, yeah, we're building projects in Shepherdstown or Morgantown, but like, we really need income and jobs being sent into the southern part of the state. So let's do that, and so that was always a huge part of the motivation for me working with Coalfield at that point.

Brandon Dennison:

So our first Solar Crew Chief was a former coal miner, underground coal miner. Do you remember Robert?

Dan Conant:

Yeah, I do. He was awesome.

Brandon Dennison:

And already a licensed electrician. So he came right out of the mine because he worked on mining equipment underground. So he was already licensed came right out of there, ready to roll our first work truck was a an old ice cream truck.

Dan Conant:

Did you start the music on that? Like the do do do's?

Brandon Dennison:

I don't think that worked but it's still a little window. I mean, we have some hilarious pictures of the guys like in their solar you know, solar hat in our first cruise like a green hard hat with with like a Friends of Coal bumper sticker on it, sitting behind the window of a used Ice Cream Truck.

Dan Conant:

So yeah, instantly we wanted to work together and so we started working with Coalfield where I was developing the projects, you know, working with you guys teaching them how to like what they're looking for how they're doing this stuff and then Coalfied's hiring up the workers and, and the crew members, and, you know, it was it was a way for us to support Coalfield's good work, too. So yeah, we started that in like 2014, 2015. And then we kept going and did did a bunch of those projects using that funky water heater, power plant, including a project on Coalfields offices and apartments in Wayne, and then Harmony House in Huntington and a Public Library, and then we just kept going. So by 2016, I had badgered enough investors to allow us to launch the first solar loan program in Appalachia for homeowners, because obviously, this stuff only works if people can afford it. And, you know, no one would have cars or, or cell phones if you had to pay for everything up front. So we we launched that in 2016 and just started going to town. So you know, and these days, we're up to 75. As of today, we're at 75 employees around West Virginia.

Brandon Dennison:

This number at this point, it's like going up every week.

Dan Conant:

Yeah, yeah.

Brandon Dennison:

Like I saw you earlier this year, 55. Saw you in the spring, 65.

Dan Conant:

Yeah. Next week, we'll be at 80. We, we just made five hires this week. So it's it's growing.

Brandon Dennison:

Yeah, go ahead. The union decision was inspiring to me.

Dan Conant:

In late 2019, we had, we were, well actually I am going a little further back. So in 2018, we actually we Coalfield and Solar Holler had this joint venture, and in 2018, so Solar Holler was doing well enough where we actually bought out our partnership with Coalfield and brought all of the Coalfield staff who had been working on with it under the Solar Holler banner, and just truly combined forces. So then, by 2019, things were exploding. You know, AEP has been jacking up rates a ton, power is getting more and more expensive. At the same time, solar panel prices have been going way down, and we had set up all this financing and, you know, kind of laid the groundwork. So by 2019, demand was exploding and we just really needed we needed good, solid, knowledgeable, talented electricians and trades folks, and needed to be able to find them quickly and onboard them so we could take care of all the people that were looking to work with us. So we reached out to the IBEW Electrical Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and approached them about joining up and there were a bunch of motivations there. Number one, going back to the Golden Horseshoe, a conversation from earlier, West Virginia led the labor movement. You know, like unions were born here. They were born underground in the mines and in the steel plants, you know, people fought so hard and had to like, died and had to like face down goons, goons with Tommy Guns.

Brandon Dennison:

Or they had to face down the US Air Force.

Dan Conant:

West Virginians had to give so much in order to be able to band together and get decent, get decent retirements and get like a forty-hour week and be able to, like not make life about work. And, yeah, and what script the script money was a thing and that was West Virginians led the charge to like get unions in place to unionize, to be able to get all these protections and really lead the way for the rest of the country. And I, you know, just because we're moving over to a new energy technology here, maybe just because we're switching from coal to gas to solar, doesn't mean we have to give all that up. And so that just meant a lot to me. And, you know, beyond that, just the training and the quality, and like the folks who go in and join, join the electrical unions are the best of the best. So we wanted to, you know, be able to piggyback off of the union's pensions and 100% health care for the whole family and be able to offer all that at the same time. We're having a safety net for our folks, and be able to recruit from just have an amazingly talented pool of folks. So we reached out to them, and they didn't have to sell me at all.

Brandon Dennison:

Management management lead. Yeah.

Dan Conant:

According to our labor, or according to our attorneys at Solar Holler, they had never seen a case in 40 years of labor law in West Virginia, where the CEO and the founder was the one doing the labor organizing. That was apparently not normal. But you know, that like I said, that just mattered to me, like I don't want us to step I don't want us to step backwards, as we're making this transition, and we want to do right by folks. And it just made a made a ton of sense from the company's perspective at the same time that we're giving, giving our employees what they needed.

Brandon Dennison:

Close to wrap up here. I've got two more questions. What's the growth plan? What's on the horizon? And could you talk about your role in the ACT now coalition, Appalachian Climate Technologies Coalition, and what that could mean for business growth as well.

Dan Conant:

So we've got a dream that we can get to 100% renewable energy in West Virginia. And we're working to do that in the next 15 years. It's when we do that it's going to be a $50 billion investment. Yeah, $50 billion of investment we're looking to make in West Virginia. And that's going to take a whole lot of talented people.

Brandon Dennison:

The amount of jobs that's going to take...

Dan Conant:

And it's an across the lots of different kinds of

Brandon Dennison:

Quite a scaling process. jobs. It's, you know, even even now, within our 75 folks, we've got electricians, we've got folks coming out of the roofing world, we've got project managers, we've got designers who build these amazing 3D worlds. So we can figure out how much sunlight sitting every square inch of a roof every 15

Dan Conant:

Yeah, we're looking to do some pretty amazing, minutes of the year. And then the finance folks and the warehouse team and just all the different kinds of people that it takes to pull these projects off, because it turns out, they're, they're a construction job, they're an electrical job, they're a financing job, they're a software job, and it's all rolled up into one. So we need lots and lots of different skill sets. By comparison, total size of the industry last year was something in the 15 to 20 million dollar a year space in West Virginia. So we're trying to get to $50 billion worth of employment in the next 15 years. massive things here. And so we're really excited to be part of the ACT Now Coalition with Coalfield and the City of Huntington, City of Charleston, WVU and Marshall...

Brandon Dennison:

On the same team!

Dan Conant:

In the same team! And The Nature Conservancy and a bunch of other awesome groups. So we're excited to be a part of that so that we can, you know, get the warehousing and manufacturing space, in that we need to pull this off in the state as well as to start to bring more folks into the industry. And you know, when you when you bring someone into a brand new industry, they, you know, it needs training and there's a learning curve there and like, you're not going to be super, you're not going to be very productive...

Brandon Dennison:

It is an investment.

Dan Conant:

Yeah, investment and you're not going to be productive on day one, like you're going to be like wide eyed and dazed, and, and that's going to take, you know, three to six months of training to get folks to the space they need to be. So we're really excited to be part of this and working with Coalfield so we can, so we can complete all that training that we need so people can know what they know what they're doing, and do quality work and help us build all of these, like, what we're ultimately going to be doing here is building 10s of 1,000s of little power plants on rooftops, and farms all across the state. And you need talented people who can build a power plant.

Brandon Dennison:

And so maybe related to that, what are some of the biggest changes you've seen in Appalachia? And what are some of the biggest changes you've not seen yet and you still hope to see soon?

Dan Conant:

Yeah. I'd say the tone around renewable energy has really dramatically changed. I think we've gone from a world of and part of the reason people were telling me I was crazy, it was there's this assumption that now there's only room for coal in West Virginia. Turns out that's just not true that people are excited, excited about solar, that they're excited for the future here that they kind of want to take control of their own destinies, which totally makes sense, given who we are as a state. So there's all that I'd say we've seen a really marked shift in the legislature. So last year, nine years ago, I was getting shut down by the Public Service Commission for trying to do a power purchase agreement last year, it got legalized, finally, and then in the fall, we were able to do the first one of those statewide on the Coalfield on the West Edge Factory in Huntington we were able to do the largest nonprofit project ever done in the state and use that model, what I've been dreaming about doing all along with Coalfield. So I'm really excited for that, but beyond that to the Governor's office in the Legislature, have just been hearing from the big tech companies for the past five years from Amazon, Microsoft and Google and all those big tech giants that they only want to come to West Virginia, if they can get renewable energy. So they they've committed to their employees, to their shareholders and to their customers that that's what they want. So this isn't, in order for us to attract the data centers, and to attract the tech jobs and attract investment from those companies, we're going to need to shift things up and make investments in renewable energy. So I think that has sunk through at the state level. And now we're starting to see some pretty massive movement in this direction. So we're really excited for all that this stuff, I'd still like to change its work kind of a banking desert in the state. Like there's, it's really, really hard for entrepreneurs to have the resources to start up. Yeah, like if you if if you're in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, you like just spit you're gonna actually spit on a venture capitalist and, and like, you can just go in and they're like, there's this whole ecosystem out there of people investing in new ideas, young talent, and in West Virginia, like I beat my head against a wall for six years trying to get anyone to lend or support or set up bank accounts with us just because banks, banks and credit unions aren't interested in supporting small businesses and working with them and venture capital wasn't interested. So I was it was just a long slog, and I know I was insane enough to keep going. But I know a lot of people are out there. They get disillusioned, like six months, a year in, and they're trying everything but like no one will work with them, because we just don't have the resources here, and it shouldn't be that way. And so I'm really hoping that that any financial folks who are listening to this can kind of whip the banking and credit union world into shape and actually start supporting small businesses. So that's, that's what I'd really love to see.

Brandon Dennison:

Well, Dan, you're a remarkable entrepreneur, a great West Virginian, a very good friend. I've learned new things about you. I've really this gave us an excuse to hear the longer version of your story and what you've done is just beautiful and inspiring. And thank you for spending some time today on the podcast.

Dan Conant:

Thanks so much for having me. It's always it's always fun.

Brandon Dennison:

See you soon. Change in the coalfields is a podcast created by Coalfield Development in the hills and hollers of West Virginia. This episode was hosted by Brandon Dennison, and produced and edited by JJN Multimedia. Become a part of our mission to rebuild the Appalachian economy by going to our website Coalfield-development.org, to make a donation. You can email us anytime at info@Coalfield-development.org and subscribe to our newsletter for more information on the podcast. You can follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn by searching Coalfield Development. Check back soon for more episodes.