Don't look to the Kentucky Coal Museum to bring coal back.
The museum is installing solar panels on its roof, part of a project aimed at lowering the energy costs of one of the city's largest electric customers. It's also a symbol of the state's efforts to move away from coal as its primary energy source as more coal-fired power plants are replaced by natural gas. The state legislature recently lifted its decades-old ban on nuclear power.
"It's a little ironic or coincidental that you are putting solar green energy on a coal museum," said Roger Noe, a former state representative who sponsored the legislation that created the coal museum. "Coal comes from nature, the sun rays come from nature so it all works out to be a positive thing."
The museum is in Benham, once a coal camp town whose population peaked at about 3,000, according to 85-year-old Mayor Wanda Humphrey. Today, it has about 500 people, and Humphry says she is the mayor because no one else wants the job.
"It takes our entire police force — we have one person, we have Ryan — to get me in the building and back out," she said.
The town's second building was a company commissary known as the "big store," where Humphrey would visit every day after school to order an RC Cola and a bag of peanuts, charged to her father's account. Today, that building houses the Kentucky Coal Museum, which opened in 1994 with the help of some state funding. The museum houses relics from the state's coal mining past, including some items from the personal collection of "Coal Miner's Daughter" country singer Loretta Lynn.
It's also the best place in town to get the most direct sunlight, which made it an ideal location for solar panels.
"The people here are sort of in awe of this solar thing," Humphrey said.
The Southeast Community and Technical College, which owns the museum, expects the solar panels to save between $8,000 and $10,000 a year on energy costs, according to spokesman Brandon Robinson.