The Nature Conservancy, with its 65 years of substantial work protecting the environment through conservation, is making its way deeper into coal country — with a plan. The organization wants to help develop solar on up to 13,000 acres of cleared coal mine lands.
As stewards of the land, the group recognized the need to not only protect, but to also rejuvenate and transform some places to a brighter second life. They also know they need solar developers to manifest their vision. It is an estimated 13,000 acres of cleared mine lands, a diverse 253,000-acre Cumberland Forest property in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee that the Conservancy acquired.
Elizabeth McGowan for Energy News Network notes that 153,000 of the acres acquired are in the traditional coal counties of Wise, Dickenson, Russell, and Buchanan in Virginia. McGowan talked with the initiator of the new beginning for the old coal lands, Brad Kreps, a Conservancy staffer who understands the heart of the land, the region’s rivers, the trees, and the beautiful wildlife that know them as home.
The heart of the goal is to also conserve Appalachian forests from Alabama to Canada. Renewable energy can help make that possible.
“Our strength is the protection and management, with a focus on forests and wildlife,” said Kreps, director of the nonprofit’s Clinch Valley Program in Abingdon, Virginia. “We know enough about solar to know that to be successful we need developers to help us unlock the potential.”
“We’re in the first phase of finding a development partner that’s the right fit for us,” Kreps said about a recently released request for qualifications from private solar companies. “When we eventually find a partner or partners, we can look at these sites and get down to the level of detail we need.”
They expect to use pieces of land that are each 100 to 300 acres in size, due to their mining background. “A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows each could produce between 10 and 30 megawatts.”
“The notion of solar farms being part of a reclamation plan has been flirted with for years and years,” said Adam Wells, the regional director of community and economic development for Appalachian Voices Wells and founder of Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia (2016). “I’m not sure it has ever gotten out of the ‘that’s a nice idea’ phase.”
Wells believes that the conservancy will be able to execute its concept. The Nature Conservancy has a long history of very practical, effective action to buy, protect, and recuperate land. “Having a motivated landowner like the conservancy is a game-changer,” Wells said. McGowan notes, “The conservancy is a juggernaut of a worldwide organization that knows what it’s doing.”
Furthermore, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam recently signed legislation promoting solar power development in the state.
This is no small project for the organization, though. “Investing in a quarter-million Cumberland Forest acres is one of the biggest projects pursued by the nonprofit in the eastern U.S. during its seven decades of existence.
“The region’s signature biological richness prompted the conservancy to act so boldly. Not only is it a major migratory corridor, but its forests and streams have one of the highest concentrations of rare and imperiled species on the continent.”
“Renewable energy is one component,” Kreps said. “Our big goal is to conserve Appalachian forests from Alabama to Canada, which isn’t possible if we don’t test these new models. We have to up our game.” Actually placing solar developments on deforested mining lands seems like one good way to do so.
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