Large-Scale Economic Life for Mine Lands Means Solar Power
Brightfields 2019 - Virginia, a solar energy development event, will feature robust discussions on the bright, productive future of mine lands and other marginal sites in coal country.
The recovery from the 2008 recession has been powered by multiple energy revolutions. Crude oil and natural gas supplies in the U.S. have more than doubled. Simultaneous with this historic carbon boom, officially the largest in world history according to the IEA, global investment in renewable energy has also risen to a historic high. Here in the U.S., renewable power production has grown robustly in spite of some of the lowest wholesale electricity rates in the world, uncertainty about pro-renewable policies and incentives, and low natural gas prices (thanks to super abundant supplies).
Coal has been left out of this energy revolution. While oil, gas and new energy technologies have boomed, the coal economy has crumbled. Rising costs, reduced demand, environmental regulation, and increasingly cost-competitive alternatives, particularly natural gas, have led to the extremely rapid decline of the coal industry.
The market share of coal in the national electric power sector declined from 50% in 2005 to 33% in 2016, due in large part to many coal fired power plants being converted to burn (cheaper) natural gas instead. More than half of the U.S. coal mines operating in 2008 have since closed. In turn, direct mining employment in states like West Virginia has dropped roughly in half. Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal are just a few examples of recent bankruptcies.
Many coal companies own significant amounts of land and produced substantial economic activity both direct and indirect. The ripple effects of this dramatic decline of the mining industry have wrought havoc on locally owned service industries, especially those providing mechanical, electrical, and transportation services. Compounding the downward spiral, declining property and coal severance tax revenues place increased strain on public budgets, leading to cutbacks in the very services and educational systems residents of coal country depend on to make individual progress.
The totality of these unfortunate circumstances, which have become common across all of coal country and the Appalachian region in particular, have contributed to negative population trends—as the region’s youth and discouraged adults are driven away.
The sheer size of such a large industry in such spectacular decline can dash hopes. It raises questions about the realistic prospects for renewing future economic activity of similar scale in places where coal dominated. And it also raises concerns as to whether the the environmental liabilities in place on these former mine lands can be properly managed without economic activity in place to pay for it, or if they are doomed to become stranded—like so many industrial properties in previous industry busts.
To make matters worse, in addition to post-mined lands, small towns and rural communities in coal country are dotted with other types of degraded lands, including already abandoned mine lands (AMLs), hazardous waste sites, landfills, Superfund sites, and brownfield sites.
But there is a good news. Many of these properties have enormous potential for siting renewable energy projects, according to the RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative screening criteria for siting wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal facilities.
And RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative analytics have specifically identified significant opportunities for the development of solar PV in coal country. With investment, and time, a large scale brightfield development cycle on all these former mine lands and other marginal sites has the potential to grow to a scale that could restore massive economic production in these locations. By repurposing this readily available and previously used land with brightfield development, communities in coal country can begin to lean into the new energy economy and recapture their legacy as an energy-producing powerhouse.
In a report by Downstream Strategies and the Appalachian Stewardship foundation, researchers used RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative analytics to consider subset of large-scale PV sites—those with a generation capacity greater than 300 kW and certain other criteria. Of the 2,445 sites the report assessed in West Virginia, 582 sites, totaling more than 61 square miles, were found to be viable for large-scale solar PV development.
And while the opportunity for large-scale brightfield development on AMLs, landfills, Superfund sites, and brownfields is substantial, researchers also noted that West Virginia features over 550 square miles of strip-mined land, of which only a small percentage has been put back to economic use. In total, the report assessed 3,985 mining sites that were permitted after the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977—all currently in some phase of bond release.
897 mining sites totaling 158 square miles were found to be viable for large-scale PV development. Together with the AMLs, hazardous waste sites, landfills, Superfund sites, and brownfields, almost 1,500 sites across West Virginia were identified to be viable for large-scale solar PV development.
Many individuals and groups working to bring more brightfield development to the region. In Southwest Virginia, for example, a group of nonprofit and community action agencies, colleges, state agencies, planning district commissions, and other interested citizens and businesses have come together to seek to develop a solar energy industry cluster in seven coalfield counties of Southwest Virginia. Known as the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, the group is co-convened by the University of Virginia-Wise Office of Economic Development & Engagement, People Inc., and Appalachian Voices.
Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia is keen on the fact that electricity demand is expected to grow in its area. Development of some or all aspects of the solar industry value-chain—from component manufacturing and sales to engineering and installation—will not only grow the local economy, but also provide new businesses with abundant, redundant, and renewable energy. Solar energy production creates more jobs per unit of energy output than any other electric generating technology, the workgroup notes. So, in a way, transitioning to solar energy production will allow workers in coal country to exceed the power potential of the region's past generations of energy workers.
The future has already arrived and solar power already contributes a significant amount of jobs in the region. In fact, in Virginia, there are now more jobs in solar than coal—as solar energy production in Virginia has risen from merely 1 MW in 2010 to over 220 MW today.
Serious about advancing real brightfield development, the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia also recently prepared a report—the Solar Roadmap for Southwest Virginia—part of a larger roadmap for solar industry development in Southwest Virginia. The roadmap profiles candidate projects and presents an economic impact analysis of solar development in the region over the next 10 years. The ideal candidate sites identified in the roadmap report can be viewed below:
The workgroup also highlights that multinational corporations like Amazon and Apple are increasing their investments in large-scale solar in the Appalachian region. Amazon is constructing significant solar infrastructure. In Virginia, the Amazon Solar Farm US East in Accomack County is generating approximately 170,000 MWh per year—one of several Amazon solar farms in the Commonwealth.
Apple has also invested substantially in solar panels used to power its data center in North Carolina, with the development of three 100-acre solar farms in the state. Collectively, these brightfield developments account for 58 MW of solar energy capacity—only part of Apple’s goal for 100% of its operations to run on renewable energy sources.
All this and more will be center-stage at Brightfields 2019 - Virginia, which is convening a large collection of experts working to repurpose the energy production of coal country to another capacity and the many issues, complexities, challenges and opportunities that brightfield development on mine land and marginal sites holds for the Appalachian region, coal country and the energy producing world beyond.
Join Adam Wells from the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia in the discussion at Brightfields 2019 - Virginia!
Have mine land? Thinking solar? Landowners, communities and anyone with mine land, AMLs, hazardous waste sites, landfills, Superfund sites, and brownfields can attend Brightfields 2019 - Virginia FREE with no obligations! Learn how >>
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According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a Brightfield is an abandoned or contaminated property that is redeveloped through the incorporation of solar energy, which can be many different types of solar applications including photovoltaic arrays. Brightfield development leads to economic development, environmental cleanup and improved air quality by bringing pollution free solar energy and high tech manufacturing jobs to brownfield sites. A Brightfield's current or desired use is for solar energy production, or it has been professionally designated as suitable for use as a productive solar site; typically verified by one or more third-party reports. Ready Brightfields have some, if not all, utility infrastructure already in place or may simply be near utility lines amenable to solar power distribution. Use the Brightfield tag on BL as one of the many tags in our handy Taxonomy to post any kind of property, project, RFP, RFQ or RFI or planning effort where the solar is relevant.