Appalachian solar installer combats opioid addiction with employment

The opioid epidemic has devastated the United States, and no region has felt the impact of widespread addiction more than Appalachia. After witnessing how irresponsible pharmaceutical practices affected its community, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, contractor Mountain View Solar (mtvSolar) (No. 252 on the 2022 Top Solar Contractors List) is doing its part to fight back by partnering with a local addiction treatment center.

Credit: Mountain View Solar

mtvSolar started as a building contractor in 1995, constructing homes that were considered “green” before the term was popularized. The company built homes with tight envelopes, high-performance insulation, radiant floor heating and low-to-no volatile organic building compounds.

“We came from that level of building, and we were conserving energy. We were doing a lot of geothermal work, air and hydronic. Making energy was the next logical step for us, and that’s what happened,” said Michael McKechnie, founder and CEO of mtvSolar.

The company began installing small wind and solar hot water systems before switching to PV in 2007. mtvSolar built its last house in 2011 and has been installing strictly PV and battery storage ever since. Over the last 25 years, the solar installer has been building a presence in the community.

In 2021, dr. Jonathan Hartiens, CEO of the Mountaineer Recovery Center (MRC) outside Martinsburg, West Virginia, commissioned mtvSolar to install an array at the addiction treatment center. As the construction date approached, Hartiens suggested that some people enrolled in the recovery program get involved with the installation itself.

“We thought it was a great idea and took it a step further from not just being a piece of the installation, but also an employment opportunity for those that were taking part in the install,” said Mike Studholme, senior commercial and residential PV consultant at mtvSolar.

Hartiens said employment is one way to give people a sense of structure as they exit the recovery program, since it’s easier for people to fall back into addiction during idle times.

So mtvSolar selected two people in the outpatient portion of addiction treatment at MRC to assist with construction. The contractor trained and paid the two workers, and even helped arrange housing for them, since people often exit drug rehabilitation without a vehicle, cellphone or place to stay.

The two trainees helped construct a nearly 200-kW solar array atop MRC. Throughout their solar employment, candidates were drug-tested and met with their addiction counselors weekly to ensure they were satisfying their rehabilitation requirements. After the install, mtvSolar hired one of the trainees, who is still working at the company.

“Addiction is such a complex issue. It deserves a multi-faceted approach to recovery,” said Kelly Waugh, VP and controller at mtvSolar. “This is the latest way that we’ve seen we can have an impact. We can build relationships and we can give these folks a second chance in the process.”

Since its involvement with MRC, mtvSolar has expanded its rehabilitation support further. The contractor has now converted space above its headquarters into several apartments for other trainees in recovery. It’s already fully occupied with people in the employment program.

Although this partnership is new, mtvSolar has always taken a different approach to hiring and retention. Company policy states that if a current employee falls into addiction, they can seek treatment and return to their job upon rehabilitation.

“We don’t discriminate in our company in any aspect,” said Ryan Slack, master electrician with mtvSolar. “If I see someone that’s on our crew that needs help, I’ll send them to go get help, and they’ll have a job when they come back. A lot of places don’t offer that. If you come up positive on a drug screening, a company will just fire you and want nothing to do with you from here on out. I don’t believe in that.”

mtvSolar’s CEO recognizes that many people working in the trades are in recovery from addiction. Being open to workers who have difficult pasts can benefit both the individuals and the company.

“Bringing them in has been good for us, and it’s helping the company as well,” McKechnie said. “This is purely not an altruistic thing. We’re doing this to serve a need that we have. A guy that was in the trades that’s become clean, that skillset’s not gone. They still have it; they just need to figure out how to manage their life better.”

This story was featured exclusively in our 2022 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top US solar installers here.

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