Coal Losing Death Grip On Yet Another Coal State

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The iconic Appalachian coal producing state of West Virginia has soldiered through the most intense series of bombings in US history. The dust has not settled yet, but the winner is…maybe solar power? That’s a mighty big maybe, but state policy makers are finally beginning to realize that mining for coal by flattening hundreds of pristine mountaintops with explosives is perhaps not the best strategy for long term economic growth.

mountaintop removal coal

Wait — what’s all this about bombings in West Virginia?

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

It’s been a while since mountaintop removal coal mining has crossed the CleanTechnica radar. The practice — literally, blowing the tops off virgin mountains to reach coal seams close to the surface — was relatively uncommon until recent years.

The Obama administration tried to clamp down on mountaintop mining, partly through new Department of the Interior rules that would prevent miners from using adjacent streams and valleys to dump the rubble from mountaintop removal. However, the rules weren’t finalized until 2017. That was just in time for the newly minted Commander-in-Chief* to sign new legislation reverting the status quo back to 1983.

According to the organization Appalachian Voices, so far coal miners have blown up a total of 500 mountains in the region, including 135 in West Virgina.

Solar Power To The Rescue?

The coal economy has always been a tradeoff for West Virginians in terms of chronic public health issues and missed opportunities. The surge in mountaintop mining added a new layer of hurt.

With the advent of solar power, coal stakeholders argue that it’s all good, because former mining sites can be repurposed for solar farms.

That’s a nice idea, but there are quite a few obstacles. Economy of scale is one of them. After all, what good is a massive new solar farm in the middle of nowhere if there is nobody around to use the electricity?

Texas actually has an answer for that, having kickstarted its wind industry with a massive new transmission line.

So, then the question is, who’s gonna pay to make all those former coal sites solar-ready? Coal miners are supposed to clean up after themselves, but even a site that meets the letter of the law would need extensive — and expensive — additional landscaping. If the initial restoration is badly done, those costs can include remediating issues like subsidence, erosion, and toxicity.

What To Do After The Coal Runs Out, Data Center Edition

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. Back in 2011, CleanTechnica took note of plans to repurpose parts of the “billion-dollar” Williamson coal field into solar farms.

That didn’t get very far, but just last month a proposed 3.5 megawatt solar farm in Wise County won $500,000 in federal funding to start construction this year.

The difference? The renewable energy will go to power a new data center.

It’s not clear how much this model could be replicated. According to our friends over at Energy News Network, the Wise County site hasn’t been mined since 1957. That doesn’t quite square with the idea of repurposing newly blown-up mountains for solar farms, but whatever.

Less Coal, More Data Centers

With all that in mind, check out what the Charleston Gazette has to say about the fourth annual West Virginia Solar Conference, which took place earlier this month:

Experts in the solar industry hope that soon West Virginia will take advantage of the thousands of acres of flat land that sits undeveloped on former mine sites throughout the coalfields — north and south — to become competitive in the renewable energy market.

Whelp, so much for repurposing blown-up mountains. Did you catch that thing about flat land?

Follow that link and support local journalism for all the details, but the takeaway from the Solar Congress is that West Virginia doesn’t have much to offer job-creating machines like Google and Amazon unless it can offer something they want, namely, renewable energy.

Solar stakeholders also point out that the competition is barking at West Virginia’s doorstep. North Carolina, for example, is becoming a triple threat with solar, biogas, and soon-to-be offshore wind in its pocket.

CleanTechnica is reaching out for some more insights into the potential for repurposing former mountaintop sites for solar, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: Mountaintop removal mining by Kent Mason via Appalachian Voices.

*Developing story.

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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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