By Chelsea Barnes
Barnes is New Economy Program Manager for Appalachian Voices. She is based in Norton.
On a clear day, from the perch of Flag Rock Overlook in Southwest Virginia, you can take in the view of the city of Norton and miles and miles of mountain ridges. The thousands of acres of former surface mines also visible from this vista illustrate the legacy of coal, and present environmental challenges for surrounding communities in a region grappling with high unemployment rates, declining populations, and an opioid epidemic.
After more than 100 years of mining, it’s clear coal is not coming back to Appalachia as the economic force it once was. The need to fully restore and reclaim these mountain mine lands has never been greater. As the nation’s energy landscape continues rapidly shifting, we could give these mines new life with clean energy technology, spurring job growth and giving our region new hope for a bright future in the 21st century.
This was the prevailing topic of conversation at the “Brightfields 2019” conference, sponsored by Brownfield Listings LLC, in Richmond in April, where landowners, government agencies, and solar developers discussed the promise of building solar energy projects on brownfields throughout the region, including formerly mined lands. It’s a great visual and a great idea: put these overlooked land resources to use for local communities as electricity producers and job providers with a shining symbol of the changing energy economy.
Momentum is building fast for this compelling economic opportunity. A few notable examples of solar being sited on abandoned mine lands are moving forward, but if Virginia hopes to take advantage of this vast land resource in the coalfields to develop solar energy, Virginia’s leaders must move swiftly to provide the incentives and regulatory framework necessary to encourage solar developers and landowners to do so.
Policymakers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. New policies and programs can be built out of modifications to existing programs, including state legislation enacted in 2018 paving the way for the development of 5,500 megawatts of competitively-procured wind and solar energy and programs supporting the redevelopment of brownfields.
As Virginia moves forward with potentially thousands of megawatts of solar energy, purposely creating opportunities for solar development on coal mine lands will help ensure that Southwest Virginia isn’t left behind in the 21st-century energy transition. Such policies and programs could include bonus cash incentives specifically for solar energy developed on abandoned mine lands and other brownfields, program requirements that a certain amount of solar development be located on brownfields, or expedited permitting procedures for those projects. State agencies, nongovernmental organizations, electric utilities, and other stakeholders can collaborate to develop a handbook to guide solar developers and landowners through the process of developing solar on mine lands.
West Virginia’s “Modern Jobs Act” considered in its 2019 session provides another idea: the law would have allowed large energy consumers to purchase solar electricity generated on former coal mines either through direct ownership or “power purchase agreements” with a solar company. The bill also would have allowed large energy consumers to sell their procured solar energy via the utilities’ existing transmission and distribution system.
Whatever approaches Virginia may implement to support solar on mine lands, leaders must maximize local benefits for the Southwest Virginia communities that have for so long been left behind by the industries making profits on the back of the local workforce. This can be accomplished by creating job training programs in solar energy development in the region and collaborating with solar developers and installers to provide on-the-job training programs for local workers.
Job training programs are especially important to Southwest Virginia now in light of the U.S. Department of Labor’s recent proposal to shutter numerous rural job centers around the country, including the Flatwoods Job Corps center in Coeburn. Flatwoods, which has provided training for young adults for generations, has earned distinction for the caliber of its programs; for example, it just wrapped up its first round of training for installing solar energy equipment. The Labor Department is taking public comments on its closure plan through July 1.
There is enormous potential for solar development on abandoned mine lands in Southwest Virginia, but without significant and swift policy changes, the commonwealth won’t be able to realize the many benefits sitting at its doorstep. Regulators and legislators must not let this opportunity slip away. Repurposing mine lands for solar development can be a boon for our region with the right incentives and programs in place — but the time to act is now.