It has been obvious that the strip mines on sliced-off mountaintops are roomy enough to fully power WV and KY with wind and solar, and much more. Now that renewables are cheaper than coal, we are taking that idea seriously for the first time. But there are obstacles.
Here's how we turn former coal mine lands in West Virginia into solar fields
Around a quarter of a million people are employed by the solar industry at this time. The plan explains that West Virginia could encourage investment in its existing solar industry to increase rooftop installations and convert former mine lands into solar fields. Eriks Brolis, economic development lead for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said in a statement that the state just needs the right policies in place.
“By encouraging the development of large-scale solar on former surface coal mines, West Virginia has an historic opportunity to build upon its legacy as a domestic energy provider," Brolis said. "With a fair and predictable state policy framework, a new energy economy could emerge: creating jobs for miners to apply transferable skills, generating valuable lease revenues for landowners and replenishing the tax base for local communities—all while helping to attract new employers and industries to the state.”
The more than 500 MTR sites in several states occupy more than 2000 square miles, which is 8% of the area of West Virginia.
MTR and other surface mining sites are relatively flat, treeless, generally with access roads and power transmission lines in place. Reclaimed sites generally are not hospitable for reforestation, and end up as grassland.
The Solutions Project page for West Virginia tell us
Percentage of West Virginia Land Needed for All New Wind, Water & Solar Generators
They recommend about two-thirds solar and one-third wind for WV to go fully renewable.
Mountaintop removal mining—Wikipedia
Mountaintop removal mining (MTR), also known as mountaintop mining (MTM), is a form of surface mining at the summit or summit ridge of a mountain. Coal seams are extracted from a mountain by removing the land, or overburden, above the seams. This method of coal mining is conducted in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. Explosives are used to remove up to 400 vertical feet (120 m) of mountain to expose underlying coal seams. Excess rock and soil is dumped into nearby valleys, in what are called "holler fills" ("hollow fills") or "valley fills". Less expensive to execute and requiring fewer employees, mountaintop removal mining began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. It is primarily occurring in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee.
There are enough surface mines (MTR, open pit mines, strip mines) in the US to host all of the wind and solar the entire country needs many times over, if we can overcome industry and government resistance, and update the grid to transport the electric power to where it is needed.
May 18, 2018 - Plans for the state’s largest solar farm are stuck in limbo while a coal giant, once run by West Virginia’s governor, drags its feet on required reclamation.
A 100-megawatt solar farm is planned for Bent Mountain, a former coal mine in Kentucky's Pike County, but delays in reclamation work there mean the project may be running out of time.
A plan to turn a played-out coal mine into the largest solar farm ever built in Kentucky stirred the imaginations of clean energy advocates with a vision of hundreds of thousands of panels glinting on a thousand-acre wasteland, delivering clean energy to the power grid.
But a year after it was proposed, the $150 million project on Bent Mountain in Pike County, the heart of the state's eastern coalfield, is still just a vision. Thanks to foot-dragging by Kentucky Fuel, a coal company that is years behind in a nearby cleanup that must come first, time may be running out for the solar venture.
"There is an urgency all the way around," said Adam Edelen, one of the solar farm's developers. "We feel it. This project being shovel ready in 2019 or 2020 is really important." After that, federal tax breaks for renewable energy start to dwindle, undermining the economics.
Part of Edelen's sales pitch, delivered in his mild Southern accent, is the solar farm's location on a former mountaintop-removal coal mine.
Solar farms could adorn former mountaintop-removal coal mines—PV Magazine
Apr 20, 2017 - Berkeley Energy Group, an Eastern Kentucky coal mining company, is partnering with EDF Renewable Energy to turn two former mountaintop-removal coal mine sites into the state’s largest solar farms.
If built, the project, which is expected to have between 50 and 100 MW in capacity, will be between five and 10 times larger than Kentucky’s current largest solar farm – a 10-MW project located 178 miles due east of Pikeville in Mercer County. The partners are touting the project as, potentially, Appalachia’s first large-scale solar project.
At this early stage of the project, no hard job numbers are available, but for Pikeville – where unemployment is 11.6% (more than twice the national rate) and the median income isn’t far off the federal poverty rate – any new employment would be welcome.
Mountaintop Removal Site Could Become Kentucky's Largest — Ecowatch
Apr 19, 2017
— Ryan Johns, an executive with Berkeley, told the Louisville Courier-Journal:
I grew up with coal… Our company has been in the coal business for 30 years. We are not looking at this as trying to replace coal, but we have already extracted the coal from this area.
In the article, Johns added that the plan is just an extension of using that land to produce energy for the nation while putting out-of-work coal miners back to work.
Outsiders might be forgiven for experiencing whiplash at that final statement.
Harnessing the sun in coal country - CNET
Mar 12, 2019 — Ross Harris Group, a family coal company that owns roughly 300,000 acres of land in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee, has been a fixture for more than three decades. Coal is still a significant part of its portfolio, but as the industry continues to decline, RH Group has diversified.
Though solar power may seem better suited for the flat deserts of the Southwest, RH Group has decided that moving beyond coal is critical for its survival.
May 8, 2017 — The Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 put regulations in place that require coal companies to restore the land after they are done mining to prevent groundwater contamination, control erosion, and get rid of other hazards. The Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement reports that over 6 million acres of abandoned mine land exist in the U.S.
About 1.7 million of those acres are in Appalachia. Most of it is not useful for solar or wind farms, said Chris Barton, director of the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, but around “100,000 acres of land would probably be suitable.”
However, before any sort of development can be done, “the sites have to be stable,” Barton said. “They shouldn’t have landslides and erosion should be controlled, but that doesn’t mean it always is.” Many coal companies still own the bonds to the land, and some don’t finish – or even begin – reclamation projects.
Even if it is reclaimed properly, the land isn’t available for development until the coal company releases the bond and rights are returned to the original owner – which could be a mining company, a landholding company, or someone in the community who has owned it for generations.
Apr 18, 2017 - (AP) — The proposed solar farm would generate between 50 and 100 megawatts of electricity that would be sold to power companies along the East Coast. The project would cost tens of millions of dollars and include “hundreds of thousands” of solar panels. The strip mines under consideration cover thousands of acres.
Apr 29, 2019 — 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.
Wait — what’s all this about bombings in West Virginia?
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.
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.
Dec 31, 2019
— I decided to crunch the numbers and what I discovered was quite intriguing:
- According to the Appalachian Voices website (a non-profit committed to protecting the land, air and water of the central and southern Appalachian region), 574,000 acres (897 square miles) of land in Kentucky has been surface mined for coal and more than 293 mountains have been severely damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining.
- According to the U.S. Department of Energy website, the total electricity consumption in Kentucky (residential, commercial, and industrial) in 2005 was 89.4 billion kilowatt hours.
The following projection is based on experience from photovoltaic solar installations already in place here in Kentucky and from the fact that we get four and a half hours of sunlight per day on average accounting for clouds.
To produce that much electricity in one year from solar panels in this region, around 190 square miles of land would need to be covered by a 69.1 gigawatt solar array.
And 897 square miles of land has been has been flattened by mountain top removal.
Therefore, if we merely put solar panels on one-fifth of our already cleared land, we would supply ALL of the electricity needs for the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky!
If we covered the entire 897 square miles of cleared mountaintop space in Kentucky, we could supply nearly 10 percent of the electricity needs of the entire U.S.!
An explosive is detonated at an A & G Coal Corporation surface mining operation in the Appalachian Mountains on April 16, 2012 in Wise County, Virginia. Critics refer to this type of mining as "mountaintop removal mining" which has destroyed 500 mountain peaks and at least 1,200 miles of streams while leading to increased flooding. The Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)