A coal strip mining site in Scott County, Tennessee. Credit: Appalachian Voices / Creative Commons

Developers of a solar farm atop a former Kentucky coal mining site hope their work will inspire similar projects – putting abandoned land to use and helping revive the Appalachian economy.

However, for reasons both logistical and cultural, the process is much more complicated and time consuming than it may seem.

In April, a Kentucky coal company, Berkeley Energy Group, announced that it has partnered with EDF Renewable Energy to turn an old strip mining site in eastern Kentucky into a solar farm. With both the landowner and the developer on board with the project, it was an ideal situation. But for more of these types of projects to work, a lot has to fall into place: the site has to be reclaimed appropriately, the landowner must agree to the project, and it must be relatively flat and close to transmission lines.

The idea is a complete mind shift for energy companies, said Doug Copeland, project development manager for EDF, but it’s feasible.

“It’s something that should be able to be done in other places,” he said. “It’s a test for us, but we’re doing everything we can to figure out to make sure this isn’t just a novelty.”

Choosing a stable site

Surface mining includes mountaintop removal mining, strip mining, and open-pit mining. The Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 put regulations in place that require coal companies to restore the land after they are done mining to prevent groundwater contamination, control erosion, and get rid of other hazards. The Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement reports that over 6 million acres of abandoned mine land exist in the U.S.

About 1.7 million of those acres are in Appalachia. Most of it is not useful for solar or wind farms, said Chris Barton, director of the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, but around “100,000 acres of land would probably be suitable.”

However, before any sort of development can be done, “the sites have to be stable,” Barton said. “They shouldn’t have landslides and erosion should be controlled, but that doesn’t mean it always is.” Many coal companies still own the bonds to the land, and some don’t finish – or even begin – reclamation projects.

Even if it is reclaimed properly, the land isn’t available for development until the coal company releases the bond and rights are returned to the original owner – which could be a mining company, a landholding company, or someone in the community who has owned it for generations.

If all that’s taken care of, developers can pick the land parcels to use. The Kentucky solar project, for instance, began in early 2016 when Ryan Johns, project development executive of Berkeley Energy, decided he wanted to help diversify the company’s portfolio as the coal mining industry declines. He and his team took stock of the land they own throughout Eastern Kentucky to find a site close to transmission lines and mostly flat. Part of the land has to be contoured, Johns said, and another portion is currently being mined. The project won’t be able to continue until that’s finished in a year or so.

“It’s a multi-year development cycle,” Copeland said. “The intent is that we line it up so reclamation work is complete, then come right on site and begin construction, which will take 8 to 12 months.”

Connecting rural areas

When it comes to solar or wind projects, transmission has been the biggest hurdle for developers because of how remote these former mine sites are, particularly in Appalachia. EDF had to find power lines of the right size and capacity to take on hundreds of thousands of solar panels that produce 50 to 100 megawatts of energy.

A similar situation has played out in West Virginia, where the idea of providing energy through alternative energy sources using reclaimed surface mines is not new. “We’ve called reclaimed surface mines ‘Energy Parks,’ and raise such things as switchgrass and Miscanthus for biofuel,” said Jeff Skousen, a professor and land reclamation specialist at West Virginia University. “Solar panels and wind turbines could also certainly be constructed on these sites and used in conjunction with other energy producing systems.”

The problem, Skousen said, is that because there are so few people in the region, the energy has to travel long distances to where it’s needed. “Electric lines would need to be constructed to get this power on the grid,” he said. Even if those logistics worked out, he said, better solar cells and batteries would be necessary because the state gets over 180 days of cloudy weather, and unless the site is on a ridge at higher elevation, most sites aren’t windy enough to generate electricity with turbines.

Renewable energy projects anywhere face the same challenges, Copeland said, whether they’re in the California desert or on top of a former mine. It comes down to how open developers, especially coal companies, are to the idea of diversifying their portfolio and investing in the projects.

Other experts say that Appalachia provides a good opportunity for energy projects because many areas are already equipped with power stations and power lines from coal mining operations. What’s often more difficult than technical logistics, Barton said, is convincing the community that the project is worthwhile.

“There’s still a bit of social perception about replacing coal with something else, but I think that is finally hitting a tipping point where people are more receptive to it,” he said. “Any of these initiatives will create jobs, and we’re still doing something in the energy sector. We’re just trying to put something useful in an area that is many times not utilized to its potential.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. She compiles the Southeast Energy News daily email digest. Lyndsey is the publisher of Southerly, a weekly newsletter about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. She is on the board of directors for the Society of Environmental Journalists.