Renewables are the key to a sustainable future. Instead of torturing the Earth to extract coal, oil, and gas that leave billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane in their wake, solar and wind farms produce clean electricity power directly and indirectly from the sun. There are no emissions from renewable energy and the fuel — sunlight — is free and inexhaustible.
Yes, it is true there are emissions associated with obtaining the raw materials for making solar panels and wind turbines and in manufacturing them, yet those emissions are offset once they are placed in service. The emissions are just beginning when fossil fuels are burned to create electricity. Also, renewables generate electricity locally. Because the cost of fuel never costs the way oil and gas prices do, long term power purchase agreements can be entered into with the certainty that a war in Ukraine or Taiwan will not send fuel spiraling out of control.
While we all agree that solar is a vital part of the transition to renewable energy, not everyone wants a solar farm next door. People shouldn’t be clear cutting forests or taking arable land out of production to put up solar panels (although there can be a happy symbiosis between solar energy and agriculture.)
Transforming Coal Country
In 2019, the Nature Conservancy acquired 253,000 acres of forest in the central Appalachian Mountains that it calls the Cumberland Forest Project. “We’ve identified the Appalachians as one of the most important places on Earth for us to do conservation,” Brad Kreps, the Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley program director, tells the Washington Post. “We put the Appalachians in a very rare company along with the Amazon, the wild lands of Kenya and the forests of Borneo.”
The Cumberland Forest includes several abandoned mine sites scattered throughout Virginia coal country. Those mines have large areas that are flat and exposed to sunlight — a rarity in the mountains and the by-product of strip mining that literally takes the tops off of mountains to get at the coal below. What’s left behind are open plains where none existed before. One advantage of such abandoned mining sites is that they are close to electrical transmission lines, which means there is no need to build expensive new infrastructure to connect the electricity from solar farms to the grid.
6 former mining sites owned by the Nature Conservancy will become the first utility scale solar farms in the region in cooperation with partners Dominion Energy and Sun Tribe. The hope is that converting those six abandoned sites will serve as a model that can be replicated nationwide. One of them is the Highlands Solar project, which will re-purpose 1,200 acres of the former Red Onion surface mine and surrounding properties in Wise and Dickenson Counties. The project will generate approximately 50 megawatts of solar energy, enough to power 12,500 homes at peak output, and provide benefits to the area such as an increase in local tax revenues and the creation of clean energy jobs.
Solar & Coal Fields
Brad Kreps adds in a Nature Conservancy blog post, “Southwest Virginia and the wider Central Appalachian coal fields have an important role to play in the renewable energy economy some of the region’s former mined lands are well suited for solar development and by directing development towards these Areas it will help us conserve the region’s intact forests for wood products, carbon storage, habitat habitats, outdoor recreation and tourism. By collaborating with Dominion Energy and other companies on these initial projects, we hope to develop a model that can be replicated in other coal mining regions across the US”
“In the coal field region, there’s about 100,000 acres that’s been impacted from mining,” says Daniel Kestner of the Virginia Department of Energy. “Better to build on a lot of these mine sites than some prime farmland or some areas that maybe don’t want solar in their community.”
He’s also hopeful the projects will bring tax revenue and jobs to the area. Lou Wallace, chair of the Board of Supervisors for Russell County, Virginia is pushing for counties in the coal fields to diversify their import. She’s been promoting the beauty of the area’s rivers and mountains for recreation and tourism. Her family released on coal for generations.
“We’re very proud to be an energy producing community,” she says when asked about the new solar farms being built on abandoned coal mines. “This is helping us to re-imagine how we produce the energy. So we’re still able to say we’re keeping the lights on somewhere.”
For more than 100 years, thermal generating stations have supplied America and the world with electric power. But creating it also blasts the atmosphere with waste products that threaten us all. The age of thermal is past. Renewables are the future. The question now is whether that transition will happen quickly enough to prevent the collapse of human society. Kudos to the Nature Conservancy for showing us one way to move forward with the renewable energy revolution.
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