On a recent spring morning, coal mine operator Dale Murray stood atop a stretch of land in western Virginia that had been dozed flat by mountaintop strip mining, and he enjoyed the panoramic view it afforded of the surrounding Appalachian hills.
Murray’s company CM Mining bought the thousands of acres of former mining land from Alpha Natural Resources in 2017, picking up a parcel that Murray said many in the region believed “you can’t do anything with.” But he and his partner have zeroed in on an unlikely idea for this stretch of coal country: install a large-scale solar power project.
“We believe it’s the future in this area,” he said.
New solar and wind power installations are sprouting up and giving new purpose to idle degraded spaces across the country, from shuttered Appalachian coal mines to former phosphate projects in Florida and landfills in New England. The trend is likely to accelerate as President Joe Biden’s administration looks to expand renewable energy to fight climate change.
A NEED AS BIG AS THE NETHERLANDS
Wind and solar power requires at least 10 times as much land as fossil fuels to produce the same amount of electricity, according to the Brookings Institution, and both the clean power industry and public officials would prefer it does not crowd into areas that are wild, arable, or needed for city planning.
As of last year, there were more than 417 renewable energy installations on formerly contaminated lands in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has screened more than 44 million additional post-industrial acres for renewable energy potential.
Much of that land could end up in demand: Consultancy Rystad Energy estimates that the Biden administration’s plans to decarbonize the economy will require more than 8.5 million acres for solar farms alone — an area bigger than the Netherlands.
“It’s vital for us to take these formerly contaminated lands and put them to productive use,” said Carlton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management at EPA. He said siting renewable energy on contaminated lands helps clean up communities, improves the economy, and counters climate change.
“PART OF THE PUZZLE”
Post-industrial sites hold some benefits for solar and wind developers as well since they are often located near existing transmission infrastructure, or in states that offer incentives to developers who use them.
But it can be expensive to prepare and stabilize disturbed land for construction, and insurance requirements can be higher. The facilities are also not big permanent jobs engines like the mines or factories they replace.
As Murray spoke, field geologists attached gauges to steel piles driven into the ground and did a “push-pull test” to check whether the soil was stable enough to erect panels he hopes will generate 75 megawatts by the end of 2023.
Hundreds of workers will build the $100 million project, but it will create just six permanent jobs. Buchanan County is seeking $2 million in federal funds for the project through a state-administered program aimed at repurposing abandoned mine lands.
“This is all just part of the puzzle of trying to make our region more attractive and improve our efforts to diversify the economy,” said Will Morefield, a Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates who supports the project.
HARD TO COME BY
In New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, solar projects on contaminated lands get preferential treatment under a renewable energy credit market. The state now has 25 such projects making up more than a quarter of its utility-scale solar capacity, according to state data.
One of them is a 28.9-megawatt solar farm on 117 acres of a former chemical plant in Toms River, built by developer PVOne in partnership with EDF Renewables.
“We’re a very small state, a very dense state. Land is hard to come by,” said Elliott Shanley, senior vice president of PVOne.
The project came online in April and is now the largest solar facility in New Jersey and the biggest on an EPA Superfund site, EDF said.
The former Ciba-Geigy chemical plant produced organic dyes and specialty chemicals between the 1950s and 1990s. The site’s former owners in 2002 settled a pollution lawsuit filed by 69 families in the area whose children were diagnosed with cancer.
The site is still being remediated through a groundwater treatment system, now powered by a portion of the new solar plant, said Stephen Havlik, who manages the site for German chemical maker BASF which bought Ciba in 2008.
Most of the rest of the electricity from the new solar farm is being fed into the regional power grid.
Linda Gillick, a longtime resident of Toms River whose adult son was diagnosed with cancer when he was three months old, said she views the solar project as a safe option for the land.
“The positive part that comes out of it is that solar energy is a cleaner way, and hopefully will add to keeping the environment clean, even though it’s on a very contaminated site,” she said.
SYMBOL OF CHANGE
Solar is not always the first choice for officials seeking to wring value out of a post-industrial site.
When Bill Lambert, head of economic development for Hardee County in central Florida, had to figure out a productive use for a sprawling former phosphate mine, he first floated the idea of a liquefied natural gas facility that would have created hundreds of full time jobs.
But the community balked due to safety concerns, so he proposed a solar farm. “We never had one person voice opposition,” Lambert said.
Duke Energy (DUK.N) is now building a 75-megawatt solar plant on 500 acres of the land, enough to power 20,000 homes and yield revenues to cover the county’s administrative costs for 30 to 50 years, Lambert said.
“If I had it my way, if I could put out an edict, I would say Florida should try to, where possible, put all solar on reclaimed land and not use good farmland,” he said.
Florida does not offer incentives specifically for renewable energy projects sited on brownfields, but it does subsidize all solar projects through a partial abatement of property taxes, according to Duke.
Duke is also building a solar project in nearby Citrus County on limestone mine property, within view of the sprawling Crystal River Energy Complex – home to a natural gas-fired power plant, two coal-fired units and a decommissioned nuclear plant.
The two solar projects will create hundreds of construction jobs for months.
But the long-term job prospects are more modest.
A handful of locals are tapped to maintain the facilities primarily by mowing the grass under the solar arrays, Duke Project Manager Coy Graham said.
Other solar sites in the country use autonomous electric mower fleets, or goats and sheep to keep grasses down.
David Pieklik, economic development director for Citrus County, pushes back at the notion solar plants won’t do much for the economy, arguing they could help attract businesses keen to tap into the green energy.
“Something that started out as one thing that becomes something else, transitions,” Pieklik said. “It takes on its own identity, its own life.”