The Kentucky Startup That Is Teaching Coal Miners to Code

As coal industry jobs are lost, likely not to return, some in coal country have turned to coding

2 min read
Software coders William Stevens, from left, Michael Harrison, and Brack Quillen work on computers at the Bit Source LLC office in Pikeville, Kentucky, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.
Software coders William Stevens, from left, Michael Harrison, and Brack Quillen work on computers at the Bit Source LLC office in Pikeville, Kentucky, U.S., on Monday, 1 Feb. 2016.
Photo: Sam Owens/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Coal’s role in American electricity generation is fast diminishing. A few large coal-mining companies declared bankruptcy last year, and several coal power plants have been shuttered. The biggest loss in all this has been felt by the tens of thousands of coal miners who have been laid off. But despite the U.S. president’s campaign pledges, those jobs are going to be hard to bring back. Besides competition from natural gas and cheaper renewables, coal mining, and mining in general, is losing jobs to automation.

But now, a small startup in the middle of Appalachian coal country has a forward-looking plan to put miners back to work. Pikeville, Ky.-based Bit Source has trained displaced coal industry veterans in Web and software development.

The retrained workers now design and develop websites, tools, games, and apps. Bit Source is proving that coal miners can, indeed, learn how to code, and do it well.

“Appalachia has been exporting coal for a long time,” says Justin Hall, the company’s president. “Now we want to export code. We’ve got blue-collar coders. It’s the vision of the future of work: How do you train a workforce and adapt it for technology.”

Bit Source’s co-owners are Lynn Parish, who worked for over 40 years in the coal industry, and Rusty Justice, who calls himself an “unapologetic hillbilly.” The duo, who run an excavation company, bought an old Coca-Cola bottling plant in 2014 and turned it into a software development space. They got over 900 applications in response to a radio call for 10 jobs.

The 10 they chose include a former mechanic, a mine safety inspector, and an underground miner. That first group was given 22 weeks of coding and software development training paid through U.S. Department of Labor grants, and now work full time with Bit Source, designing and developing websites, tools, games, and apps.

Some were casually familiar with software, but there was a steep learning curve. They learned quickly enough, though, says Hall. They started with basic HTML Web pages, and moved on to learning CSS, Javascript, and Drupal. Among other things, the coders have designed Pikeville’s economic development and tourism websites, as well as websites for the eastern Kentucky employment program and some local businesses. They are now getting certified in the Unity game engine. “Once they got in and started working with the tools and products we provided, they were able to problem solve,” Hall says. “Coal-miners are tech-oriented people. They’re engineers that get dirty.”

Others are picking up on this idea. A handful of companies in eastern Kentucky are now “rubber stamping our business model and basically doing what we’ve done,” Hall says. And it’s not just limited to Kentucky. In Waynesburg, heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country, the non-profit Mined Minds is offering free coding classes to laid-off coal workers. Its goal is to “seed the growth of technology hubs within areas in economic need in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so that the information revolution can be the fuel to drive these areas into the future.”

The current challenge for Bit Source is to scale up and be a sustainable for-profit business. The company has received a wave of publicity for a good reason, But Hall says that doesn’t necessarily mean more work. The local market has quickly dried up, and the region is economically strained because of the exodus of mining companies, he says. He notes that Bit Source is now seeking to expand by finding projects elsewhere.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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