In southwest Virginia, abandoned coal mines are being transformed into solar installations that will be large enough to bring renewable energy to the power grid. Six former mining sites owned by the Nature Conservancy will be among the region’s first large-scale solar farms – and the nonprofit group hopes to create a model that can be replicated nationwide.
In 2019, the Nature Conservancy acquired 253,000 acres of forest in central Appalachia which it calls the Cumberland Forestry Project. It’s a small part of the group’s efforts in the mountain range, which stretches from Alabama to Canada.
“We’ve identified Appalachia as one of the most important places on Earth for us for conservation,” says Brad Kreps, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley program, which leads solar projects. “We put Appalachia in very rare company with the Amazon, the wild lands of Kenya and the forests of Borneo.”
The Cumberland Forest includes several abandoned mine sites scattered throughout the Virginia coalfield region. Solar developers in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, such as Dominion Energy and Sun Tribe, say mine sites have large flat areas exposed to the sun that are rare in the mountains, and that the sites offer advantages such as proximity to power lines. transmission.
“In the coal region, there are about 100,000 acres that have been affected by mining,” said Daniel Kestner of the Virginia Department of Energy. “Better to build on a lot of these mine sites than on some prime farmland or some area that may not want solar power in their community.” He also hopes the projects will bring tax revenue and jobs to the area.
National coal mining jobs have fallen from more than 175,000 in 1985 to around 40,000 in 2020, according to a recent report by the Interagency Coal and Power Communities Task Force. Solar will not replace what was once reliable long-term work. Jobs will be mainly in construction.
Lou Wallace, chairman of the Russell County Board of Supervisors in Virginia, is pushing for coalfield counties to diversify their economies. It promotes the beauty of the region’s rivers and mountains for recreation and tourism. His family had depended on coal for generations.
“We are very proud to be an energy-producing community,” she says when asked about new solar farms being built on abandoned coal mines. “It helps us reinvent the way we produce energy. So we are always able to say that we keep the lights on somewhere.