From the Heart of Coal Country to Solar Spring Break


March 13, 2018

The state of Wyoming supplies around 40% of America’s coal, with Campbell County alone mining over 300 million tons a year. Roughly 10% of Campbell County’s 50,000 or so inhabitants work in the coal industry and many of them live in the small town of Gillette, referred to locally as the ‘Energy Capital of the Nation’.

Gillette is also the hometown of David Bowersox, a 21 year old Arizona State University student currently studying Solar Energy Engineering & Commercialization. Bowersox has travelled out to San Diego County in California to install solar for families on the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians reservation as part of GRID Alternatives’ Solar Spring Break Program. He’s used to people asking him about his conflicting roots.

“It’s hard to convince someone on the benefits of solar when renewable energy is viewed simply as a war on coal,” says Bowersox.

Bowersox is convinced though, he’s fallen in love with renewable energy and sees anti-solar sentiments in Campbell County as more of an emotional reaction to a difficult situation than anything to do with the technology. “I don’t have these conversations that much when I go home, but when I’ve presented facts and figures to friends and family, they’ve been open to the idea,” he says.

“I can understand how it feels like an attack, but coal just can’t be competitive, it just can’t. Solar technology is moving on so fast.”

Bowersox briefly considered taking over the family business, certifying scale systems for the local mines, but after a summer internship shadowing his father (himself an electrical engineer) he decided it wasn’t where his interests lay. “I just didn’t enjoy the line of work, so I began looking for engineering degree options, and that’s when I stumbled upon solar.”

The whole Arizona State University Solar Spring Break team
The whole Arizona State University Solar Spring Break team

The solar engineering program at Arizona State University caught his eye for a few reasons. “I knew I wanted to study engineering, but before I started researching this program, I hadn’t fully appreciated that I could be one of the people actually working to make a change in the energy sector," says Bowersox.

"My Solar Spring Break experience has without a doubt changed my future career plans," explains Bowersox. "It was absolutely transformative to be able to meet the families and communities whom GRID is connecting with and making a real difference in. I now plan to focus on working with GRID or other nonprofit enterprises to be able to make a direct impact in these communities."

Bowersox isn’t sure how things will change in Gillette over the next decade, but he knows a lot of people will have to find other sources of income, or possibly move away. He does have one parting thought though. “There’s a lot of open space in Wyoming,” he muses. “Maybe we could get some solar farms going out there.”