From Coal Mines To Solar Farms: It’s Complicated, But Doable

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The idea of using abandoned surface coal mines for new utility scale solar farms has been tossed around for awhile now, and the idea certainly is appealing. The NIMBY issue would practically fade away into nothing, and a new study suggests that the potential area for solar development climbs into the thousands of square kilometers in central Appalachia alone.

So, why hasn’t much of anything happened?

Close, But No Transmission

Let’s zero in on central Appalachia for a look at the problem. A just-released interactive mapping tool charts a total of 5,900 square kilometers of former surface mines in the region, encompassing West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

Surface mines literally scrape away (or blow up) the entire surface — trees, rocks, soil, and all — to reach shallow coal seams. Once the mining operation shuts down, in theory the land must be restored or reclaimed for other uses.

That’s all well and good in terms of available land, but the devil is in the details.

As described by our friends over at US Energy News, the numbers go down significantly when you consider that many former surface coal mining sites are located far from appropriately sized transmission lines, making them uneconomical for utility scale solar development.

You lose another big chunk of land due to reclamation issues. Appalachia is a hilly region. Even after restoration, many sites would need significant additional alteration to make them suitable for solar farms, adding to expenses and potentially involving additional environmental impacts.

If the site is poorly restored, the issues really begin to pile up including subsidence, erosion, and toxicity.

Now throw in liability and land ownership issues, and you really have a fine kettle of fish.

On top of that — wait, we’re not done yet — the history of the coal industry as a whole is not exactly reassuring when the topic turns to converting former surface mines for other industrial uses.

Our friends over at Climate Home News recently ran the numbers, and less than 20% of former mining lands came under the economic development umbrella — and that includes farming, housing and recreation as well as industrial use. Most of the land is simply seeded over and may be suitable for grazing, but not much else.

The Solar Farm Light At The End Of The Coal Mine

Complicating matters even further, Appalachia is far from the prime US region for utility scale solar development, which would be the southwestern part of the country.

This is where things get interesting. Nevada is a prime solar state, and earlier this summer the state’s Environmental Commission voted to add renewable energy and energy storage to the list of “acceptable uses” for former mines.

As reported by UV Today, the Nevada Mining Association was on board with the proposal, which was engineered by the Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law, working with the Nature Conservancy.

If you’re wondering what stake the Nature Conservancy has in all this, it comes down to triage.

The solar boom is creating new pressure on pristine lands, and some of that pressure could be relieved if more solar farms were located on pre-developed land that has little or no potential for wildlife conservation.

That sounds easy enough, but there goes those details again. The law clinic found that solar developers were scared off by liability issues relating to former use.

The “acceptable use” designation means that solar developers don’t have to reinvent the liability wheel for solar farms on former mining sites.

That should help grease the wheels for mine-to-solar development in Nevada, so we’ll see how that goes.

What Comes Around, Goes Around

The Virginia team’s success in Nevada could come back around to Appalachia. According to UV Today, lead clinic member Matthew McNerny is looking forward to applying lessons learned to West Virginia, where the transmission lines situation could be favorable.

In another recent development, the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia is aiming to enlist a force of “solar ambassadors” to introduce more rooftop PV installations into the far southwestern area of the state.

Here’s the plan:

A primary feature of the report is the identification of 15 “ambassador sites” — schools, businesses, medical facilities, and low-income housing complexes — that are ideal for solar installations in the near-term and would serve as models for further deployments of solar projects. The workgroup established strong relationships with the property owners who all came to understand that solar energy made good business sense for their sites…

The idea is to grow a regional workforce and stakeholder foundation, which could help improve the prospects for utility scale solar.

That’s going to be a tough row to how. The recent uptick in southwest Virginia’s coal production has given the region’s coal economy a new shot of life.

On the other hand, E&E News spent some time interviewing people in the area and came away with the distinct impression that the up-and-coming generation no longer views the coal industry as a permanent economic anchor for their communities.

Meanwhile, one energy company actually does have a utility scale coal-to-solar farm project in the works, in Kentucky. CleanTechnica is reaching out to see how that’s going, so stay tuned.

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Image: Mountaintop removal surface coal mine via US Environmental Protection Agency.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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