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Immersed in Energy: Spring Break in Appalachia

A photo essay by Tobin Yates ‘26

The following is an excerpt from a photo essay reflection written by Tobin Yates ‘26, a participant on the Appalachia Energy Immersion Trip that ran over spring break 2024. This immersive learning experience is a partnership between the Dartmouth Sustainability Office and the Irving Institute for Energy and Society. The trip explores the history and legacy of energy systems in Appalachia and how these systems have shaped the region. They also look to the future to understand the role Appalachia is playing in our national energy transition and the other economic opportunities that are emerging for the region as the energy industry changes. In this photo essay, Tobin reflects on his experience and how it influenced his thinking. 

Artist's Statement:

This trip has placed a tangible connection between real-world issues and physical locations in West Virginia. So often, we, as students, remain distanced from a full understanding of social and climate issues due to the barrier between classroom and community. Given the past two weeks of exploration and engagement, I better understand the importance of exposure to localized residents and problems. The issues and solutions are tied to place, requiring a collaborative effort towards future resolutions between local and national policymakers. 

Moving forward, I plan to bring increased exposure to small communities within my central Virginia region through photojournalism and community engagement. After meeting with an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) representative in DC, I realized the simple power of talking to people. Residents want to be heard, and deserve a role in policymaking due to their proximity to the energy systems and specialized regional knowledge. By documenting my experiences through photography, I hope to bring a new perspective to the identities of residents and environmental impacts of different energy industries, connecting names and words to visual documentation.

[All photos taken by Tobin Yates '26]

[Two goats look on with West Virginia hills in the background.]

Landscape along the outskirts of Morgantown showcased the goats and rolling hills of West Virginia. This image was from our first day of the trip, showcasing natural beauty and strong cultural ties to the land. Already, many of us were finding our perceptions of the state to be challenged and shifted. 

[Dartmouth students wearing hard hats walk through a natural gas production site.]

The group explored a drilling and fracking site during our tour with the natural gas company Southwestern Energy. Here, we learned about developing technologies utilized in the field and the potential for future shifts towards renewable energy. I came away from the tour with helpful conversations from worker’s personal experiences growing up and working in West Virginia.

[A cliff in the New River Gorge.]

On a hike in the New River Gorge, we observed varied and dynamic scenic landscapes. The geography indicated unique geologic formations of the region, which influence the local preferences among energy systems. The area also presented opportunities for natural resource conservation through outdoor recreation. A trip dinner with outdoor recreation workers and tour of new city bike trails also demonstrated this possibility for a state with amazing outdoor activity potential. 

[Dartmouth students ride in the back of a hay wagon through the Holler with their local host, Mike King.]

The group prepares to assist in watershed research and stream analysis of Morris Creek. Through this experience, we gained an in-depth understanding of acid mine drainage and its downstream effects on natural ecosystems and local communities. The experience provided another amazing opportunity to work and talk with local people, who hold deep ties to the land. In working alongside them, I was able to observe and share in the joy of caring for the local ecosystems. 

[Students wearing hard hats gaze out on an active coal mining site. A truck dumps rubble over the edge of the cliff.]

Next, we toured active operations at the BlackHawk coal mine and examined current extraction process. This experience added to the current complexities and nuance with West Virginia energy resources and energy transition. In addition to natural gas and coal sites, we also met with solar company Solar Holler to gain perspectives on the state’s potential for new energy pathways.

[A truck dumps a load of coal onto a mountain of coal.]

[A student in special climbing equipment shimmies up an electric pole as part of a technical training program.]

Dexter Jandres Rivera ‘24 learns  the pole climbing skills of line technicians. Through this opportunity, we learned about the importance of training new workforce members to maintain energy systems during the energy transition. In addition, these technical skills provide job employment for residents who may have historically worked in fossil fuel industries.

[A person in professional attire looks at his phone in a marbled hall of the Senate building.]

During our discussions with staffers in the Senate building, we gained insight on the complex decisions for policy makers on a national scale. The talks included challenges with balancing the needs of states, people, and clean energy initiatives while also navigating diverse government opinions. However, I was left inspired by the strong dedication of those working on Capitol Hill.

[Cherry blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial on a blue sky day in Washington, D.C.]

As our trip ended in DC, I reflected on the potential for disconnect between the local communities of West Virginia and policymakers in DC. I was left personally wanting to pursue the bridges of overlap between county, state, and national governments on the topic of a just energy transition towards clean energy. Working to connect local and national decision makers will lead to greater transfers of knowledge as we move forward in a changing world.


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