Appalachia has large tracts of land previously used for mountaintop mining. Most of that land is unused today, but an increasing number of organizations — ECSI among them — are exploring possibilities and potential benefits of farming solar energy at those locations. To that end, ECSI conducted an evaluation of viable opportunities and likely barriers posed by repurposing previously mined lands for solar farms. The evaluation also identified changes that must occur before such development can happen.
Advantages of solar farming in the region include: access to underused, inexpensive lands; the ability to repurpose existing infrastructure; a readily available displaced mine labor workforce; and a desire among large landowners to find replacement revenue that emanates from their land holdings. Challenges include: cultural resistance to change from a traditionally coal-powered economy; middle range insolation values; a state-regulated utility market; absence of a Renewable Portfolio Standard and state incentives; obstacles posed by existing regulations (PURPA, interconnection, net metering etc.); and historically low electricity rates.
So far, there’s been little actual solar development in Appalachia. As indicated, there are myriad reasons, but perhaps none more substantial than the absence of state-level policies and regulations that promote growth in the solar industry. Overcoming that void will require not only revisions to current legislation, but also acceptance by utility companies, landowners, and mining companies. Solar developers must have realistic expectations of securing revenue from the electricity and RECs generated by solar projects. Additionally, solar companies will need assurance that they will be protected from unrelated environmental issues that could arise.
Utility companies indicate they want to make alternative (renewable) power sources a bigger part of their services, but there aren’t many details beyond that expressed desire. However, amid a general softening in attitudes toward alternative energy sources in the region, tangible steps could be forthcoming. A significant step would be large corporations partnering with utility companies to incorporate solar options into their energy portfolios. That scenario has occurred in other regions.
Significant steps, of course, are contingent on proof of viability. Using mine permitting data, ECSI identified mine sites that hold potential for cost-effective solar development. The study included a prioritized listing of sites (and their permit designations) that should be most advantageous.
Though landowners weren’t contacted for this study, their historic reluctance — based on regulatory concerns and the perception of modest economic gains — should be noted. At the same time, optimistic perceptions should be noted. It is anticipated that falling costs for solar facilities, along with increasing corporate sustainability goals, will prompt policy changes. Those changes, in turn, will accelerate corporate action. Political and economic factors will influence how soon significant development occurs, but there are proactive steps companies and conservation groups could be taking now.
ECSI is ideally suited as a leader in the implementation of solar energy farms where mountaintop mining once occurred. The company has more than 35 years of experience helping property owners, companies, government entities, and financial groups find alternative land uses for reclaimed mine sites.