A coal company in impoverished eastern Kentucky is planning to contruct a solar energy farm on the site of a former mountaintop removal coal mine, a project that would bring jobs and energy to the region.

Berkeley Energy Group (BEG) says the project would be the first large-scale solar farm in the Appalachian region, and five to ten times the size of Kentucky's largest solar farm

The company has partnered up with EDF Renewable Energy, which is already conducting feasibility studies for the project on two reclaimed strip mines in the eastern part of the state.  Such a project would bring much needed economic development to the Appalachian Mountains, which has long been one of the poorest and least-developed areas of the United States.  The decades-long coal downturn makes things even worse in mining communities.

"I grew up with coal," said Ryan Johns, BEG project development executive.  "Our company has been in the coal business for 30 years.  We are not looking at this as trying to replace coal, but we have already extracted the coal from this area."

Cheaper sources of energy have eaten away at coal's share of the US energy market.  Competition doesn't just come from natural gas, but also from solar, wind, and other renewables.  As a result, coal extraction in Eastern Kentucky fell from 23 million tons in 2008 to about 5 million tons last year.  At the same time, mining employment dropped from 14,373 to 3,833.

But renewable energy employment has been increasing, employing more people that fossil fuel jobs by more than 2.5 to one.  In recent years, solar and wind jobs have grown at a rate twelve times faster than the rest of the US economy.