Solar Plants to Spring Up in Former Coal Mining Land in Appalachia

Highlights :

  • While using former mining land to generate solar energy has long been discussed, six new projects are the first ones to move forward in the coalfields of the central Appalachian Mountains, U.S., as well as nationally.
  • Backers say the projects could help make waste land productive and boost economic fortunes in the local area, part of a 250,000-acre (101,171-hectare) land purchase by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 2019, one of its largest such acquisitions.

While using former coal mining land to generate solar energy has long been discussed, six new projects are the first ones to move forward in the coalfields of the central Appalachian Mountains, U.S., as well as nationally.

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Backers say the projects could help make waste land productive and boost economic fortunes in the local area, part of a 250,000-acre (101,171-hectare) land purchase by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 2019, one of its largest such acquisitions.

TNC, a U.S.-based environmental nonprofit, has identified six initial sites for solar plants in the area and is now moving forward with projects on parcels covering about 1,700 acres.

The two companies that have bid to do the work – solar developer Sun Tribe and major utility Dominion Energy – estimate the projects could produce around 120 megawatts (MW) of electricity, potentially enough to power 30,000 homes. Construction is expected to start in two or three years after pre-development work and permitting are completed.

“This is a ground-breaking model,” said Emil Avram, Dominion’s vice president of business development for renewables in Virginia. Dominion believes it is the largest utility-scale renewable energy initiative to be developed on former coal mining land, and could be replicated elsewhere, Avram added.

The U.S. government formally began looking at putting renewable energy installations on disturbed land – including mines, but also contaminated sites and landfills – in 2008. Since then, the RE-Powering America’s Land program has mapped over 100,000 potential sites covering more than 44 million acres, and helped establish 417 installations producing 1.8 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, according to March data.

Yet on mine land, the work has so far been mostly limited to doing inventories and providing technical assistance, resulting in fewer than a half-dozen projects, said Nels Johnson, TNC’s North America director for energy. That has stunted solar developers’ interest in coal mine land, he said – a knowledge gap he hopes the new projects can help fill, particularly amid a surging  focus on meeting clean energy goals.

Appalachia had harbored a deep-rooted skepticism toward renewable energy, said Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit that works in former coal communities. But recent years have seen a turnaround, he noted, with the recognition that the coal industry – the region’s longstanding main economic driver – will not return to its former strength.

In fact, the Appalachian coal industry never really flourished independently for much of the hundred-plus years of its existence. Politicians and coal barons have kept coal artificially cheap through direct and indirect subsidies, passing on the costs they incurred to the public. A blatant lack of investment in human capital and technology has led to a number of persistent problems for local residents: economic and environmental destruction, loss of health and life, poverty, unemployment, and a lack of opportunities.

In recent time, however, state and federal governments have been struggling to keep the coal industry afloat any longer. Across the country, the number of coal mines dropped by 62% from 2008 to 2020, based on U.S. government figures, translating into a loss of 100,000 jobs since the mid-1980s, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. While the number of jobs from utility-scale solar development does not compare to coal-industry jobs, solar could renew hope in the long-exploited Appalachian regions.

“It does generate notable and meaningful tax revenues for localities at a time of declining revenues from coal,” said Wells, adding, “For now, communities are watching the shift with a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.”

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