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Danny Van Clief at Sun Tribe Development solar farm. Image courtesy of Sun Tribe Development.

Clean Power

The Transformation of Appalachian Coalfields Into Solar Farms Is Starting

Sun Tribe Development is taking on a unique opportunity to be the first to generate large-scale renewable power on the coalfields of Central Appalachia, Energy News Network reports. Described as a breakout moment for the region, the plan is to have up to 75 megawatts of solar power capacity across hundreds of acres of deforested mine lands in Virginia and Tennessee.

The writer interviewed Danny Van Clief, the CEO of Sun Tribe Development, and led with the fact that his choice in taking a career in solar energy was the freedom to jump with both feet into formidable challenges. One such challenge is transforming around 550 acres of deforested mine lands across the Nature Conservancy preserve into a large-scale solar farm within two to three years.

“If it were easy, everybody would be doing it,” Van Clief said to Energy News Network about plunging into untested territory. “I’m thrilled … to play a small part in the energy transition in Southwest Virginia.”

“This is a breakout moment for the region. There’s been a lot of talk about this but not as much action,” he added. Van Clief, who has been in the solar industry as an executive for 15 years, joined Sun Tribe in 2019, where he headed up its large-scale solar business. Since his time there, the company has completed 100 MW of utility-scale projects. So, it is just getting rolling.

The article noted that since the conservancy acquired the 253,000-acre Cumberland Forest property, which spans Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and Eastern Tennessee, it’s been wanting to do something with the land in terms of an energy transition. In total, there are an estimated 13,000 acres of former surface mines that scar the property.

The conservancy, which is focused on protecting land, waterways, and wildlife, has been wanting to use the Cumberland Forest as a potential showcase to prove that investments in nature could yield financial returns. Last year, the conservancy collaborated with the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to determine the acreage on the property that would be accessible to utility lines and other infrastructure that is needed. Following that, the organization started seeking proposals from private solar developers.

Brad Kreps, director of the conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program in Abingdon, Virginia, shared some thoughts on this. “We can do things that are good for nature and people,” he said. “A mission of conservation and economic recovery can be compatible. These two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

Sun Tribe was chosen as the developer after a 9-month review of a total of 15 applicants. Sol Systems, a Washington, D.C.-based company, will finance and operate the solar systems once they are built. Kreps also spoke of how excited the organization is about the project. “We’re super excited,” he said. ” This is kind of the next big milestone.”

“We’re trying to show how an area that has historically played a role in supplying energy can build on its past and create a diversified economy that still has an energy component.”

Sun Tribe is tasked with the fun job of working with county and state agencies to secure the paperwork and permits. The article noted that another hurdle is connecting with PJM, the independent regional transmission organization that manages the grid in Virginia and 12 other states. It also detailed that the half dozen parcels selected for solar range in size from 70–125 acres. Five of these are in Virginia and one is in Tennessee. Four of the Virginia sites are in Wise County and the other one is in Dickensen County. Also, several of the sites are in Appalachian Power territory, but Kentucky Utilities also serves a small part of the region under the name Old Dominion Power.

If this project comes to fruition, then it will impact the local quality of life in a positive manner, increase tax revenue, and provide long-lasting jobs that pay well.

Coal to Sunshine

Replacing coalfields with solar arrays is a beautiful renewable energy option that can empower those affected by coal. Well, those who are still living. EndCoal noted that in the U.S., coal kills around 13,000 people annually, and the figure is 23,300 in Europe. Coal is also responsible for over 800,000 premature deaths annually on a global scale. Following this are many millions more serious and minor illnesses.

I vaguely remember my Aunt Effie when I was really little. What I remember was her constant hacking, and I think she was on oxygen, too. I’m not certain, but I remember my mother talking about Aunt Effie having breathing difficulties. She told me this was due to her husband working in the coal mines. Her emphysema was caused by second-hand exposure to the dust.

So, replacing these scars on the conservancy with solar is akin to tattooing roses over scars on the body. Or tattooing something that reminds you of your value, worth, and reason for surviving. This is a beautiful project and, personally, I’m rooting for its success.


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Written By

Johnna Crider is a Louisiana native who likes crawfish, gems, minerals, EVs, and advocates for sustainability. Johnna is also the host of GettingStoned.online, a jewelry artisan and a $TSLA shareholder.

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