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When Danny Van Clief chose a career in solar energy, he wasn’t seeking a turbulence-free glide path.

Instead, the CEO of Sun Tribe Development wanted the freedom to jump with both feet into formidable challenges — ones that might spook other developers.

That pluck has landed his Charlottesville company the opportunity to be the first to generate large-scale renewable power on the coalfields of Central Appalachia. If the bold venture announced this week comes to fruition, roughly 550 acres of deforested minelands sprinkled across an expansive Nature Conservancy preserve will generate up to 75 megawatts of solar energy within two to three years.

“If it were easy, everybody would be doing it,” Van Clief said about plunging into untested territory. “I’m thrilled … to play a small part in the energy transition in Southwest Virginia.

“This is a breakout moment for the region. There’s been a lot of talk about this but not as much action.”

Innovators within the conservancy have been itching to walk that talk since 2019 when the nonprofit acquired the diverse 253,000-acre Cumberland Forest property in Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee. An estimated 13,000 acres of former surface mines scar the property.

But an organization whose wheelhouse is protecting land, waterways and wildlife needed guidance and hands-on partners to advance that nontraditional thinking. 

All along, the conservancy had targeted Cumberland Forest as a potential showcase to prove that investments in nature could yield financial returns and critical conservation results while returning value to local communities.

In early 2020, the conservancy collaborated with the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to map out acreage on the property accessible to utility lines and other necessary infrastructure. A few months later, the nonprofit began seeking proposals from private solar developers.

“We can do things that are good for nature and people,” said Brad Kreps, director of the conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program in Abingdon, Virginia. “A mission of conservation and economic recovery can be compatible. These two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

After a nine-month review of 15 applicants, Sun Tribe was chosen as the developer. In tandem, Washington, D.C.-based Sol Systems will finance, own and operate the solar systems once they are built.

Van Clief, a solar executive for 15 years, joined Sun Tribe in 2019 to head up its large-scale solar business. In the last year, it has completed 100 MW of utility-scale projects, usually defined as 5 MW or more. Overall, the 5-year-old company has a workforce close to 80. 

Yes, the conservancy wanted developers with strong track records, but a history of environmental stewardship and a commitment to renewing and diversifying the regional economy mattered just as much.

“We’re super excited,” said Kreps, who has forged local relationships during two decades with the Virginia chapter of the conservancy. “This is kind of the next big milestone.

“We’re trying to show how an area that has historically played a role in supplying energy can build on its past and create a diversified economy that still has an energy component.”

‘Patience and a lot of listening’ 

The half dozen parcels selected for solar range in size from 70 to 125 acres. Five are in Virginia and one is in Tennessee. Four of the Virginia sites are in Wise County and one in Dickenson County. 

Sun Tribe is now tasked with the nitty-gritty of working with county and state agencies to secure the proper paperwork and permits. Another hurdle is connecting with PJM, the independent regional transmission organization that manages the grid in Virginia and 12 other states.

A majority of the sites are in Appalachian Power territory, but Lexington-based Kentucky Utilities also serves a slice of the region under the name Old Dominion Power.

Separately, through the end of March, Appalachian Power was accepting proposals for 300 MW of renewable generation. It was the first of several expected bids to put the subsidiary of the giant American Electric Power in compliance with the Virginia Clean Economy Act. That 2020 law requires the utility to provide a carbon-free grid in its service territory by 2050.

Appalachian Power commended the conservancy for enabling regional renewable energy.

“This represents another avenue for [us] to explore as we work toward meeting the requirements set forth in the Virginia Clean Economy Act,” said spokesperson Teresa Hamilton Hall.

Managing array construction and interconnection, however, could prove to be vastly simpler than proving to local communities that the flow of green electrons translates to jobs and growth.

“We are really seeking permission to become a neighbor,” said Van Clief, a University of Virginia graduate in his mid-40s. “First and foremost, we’re Virginians working in Virginia.”

The partners are in the midst of fleshing out an affiliated community benefits plan that focuses on economic development, bolstering a local workforce and environmental resiliency.

“That means patience and a lot of listening,” Van Clief said about engaging with communities.

Kreps and the conservancy have always maintained that success in maximizing the bounty of such a mammoth landscape hinges on achieving three ambitious and interwoven goals.

Conservation with the crushing threat of climate change is the first and overarching one. The second is yielding a positive financial return to show partners that investments in nature such as leasing land for solar projects, practicing sustainable forestry and sequestering carbon in intact trees are smart business decisions.

And third, but no less in value, is returning value to local communities with a boost in jobs, training opportunities, tourism and outdoor recreation.

“It’s a matter of figuring out optimal use and what we can do where,” Kreps said. “This requires a mix of approaches.”

Adam Wells, who spearheaded the formation of the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia in 2016, is ecstatic that the conservancy is pursuing a second life for land too often cast aside as unusable. 

“It’s huge. Hats off and bravo to everyone involved,” said Wells, a Wise County native and regional director of community and economic development for Appalachian Voices. “If they can do it and make it work, that is the ultimate achievement.”

He’s all too familiar with hurdles because his coalition of nonprofits, community action agencies, colleges, state agencies and planning district commissions continues to navigate a maze of obstacles that have prevented the state’s seven coalfield counties from incorporating renewable energy into a widespread economic transition. 

In his view, the conservancy and its partners have two tough tests ahead. Building economically viable solar projects in remote locales is difficult enough, never mind inventing and tweaking a community benefits package. 

“All of the players are sincere,” he said, “but there has to be follow-through. That’s the real trailblazing.”

That translates to measurable impacts on local quality of life, increasing tax revenue and providing long-lasting jobs that pay enough. 

“I’m optimistic. I have to be,” Wells said. “That’s what gets me up and going.”

Wells and his coalition will offer support. In the meantime, he has his hands full with a related effort to guide four manufacturers in Tazewell and Buchanan counties in moving beyond their coal-centric beginnings into renewable technology.

In mid-March, The Virginia Growth and Opportunity (GO) Board green-lighted close to $500,000 in state matching grants sought by Wells and Vivek Shinde Patil, another go-getter at the nonprofit Ascent Virginia.

The venture they call the Energy Storage and Electrification Manufacturing Jobs Project could generate as many as 206 direct jobs and millions in investments. The grants are designed to help local companies pivot to exporting advanced batteries and other components that fuel cars in Asia, light homes in California or store energy generated by wind farms in Europe.

Stepping stone to a broader outcome

For several years, Wells and Sun Tribe have been shepherding a separate and smaller solar project that still has the potential to be the first one to be deployed on an old coalfield in Virginia.

Construction on the 3.5-megawatt array for the Mineral Gap Data Centers is now slated to begin at the end of this year and be completed in mid-2022, Van Clief said.

Wells and his solar workgroup team pioneered a novel funding method by writing a grant to tap into federal money for redeveloping old mine sites. Appalachian states began receiving federal money from what’s known as the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program in 2016. It’s funded through the U.S. Treasury.

Approval led to the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy awarding $500,000 in 2019 to the Wise County project designed to partially power on-site data centers with a new solar array. It was designed to decrease the centers’ operating budget as well as peak-load demands on the local distribution grid.

As of now, the conservancy arrays will be funded with private dollars. Van Clief said it was premature to reveal a price tag for the undertaking.

The signature biological richness of the Cumberland Forest prompted the conservancy to invest in one of the most mammoth projects ever pursued by the nonprofit during its seven decades of existence.

If the conservancy can be successful stewards of nature in Central Appalachia while also mining the sun and renewing and diversifying the economy, Kreps is assured it could be a model in Virginia and beyond.

More than 100,000 acres have been affected by coal mining in Virginia, according to figures from the state agency soon to shorten its name to the Department of Energy. That number doesn’t include other brownfields. Mineral mining (non-coal) has impacted another 40,000 acres.

“If we can demonstrate solar on unforested lands in the Cumberland Forest, it’s a stepping stone to a bigger and broader outcome,” Kreps said. “Virginia is setting strong policy. We hope that shapes policy in neighboring states and can be connected to federal policy.

“It’s very positive for climate change and the environment.”

Currently, only 1.6% of Virginia’s electricity comes from the sun, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Recent legislation should boost that figure relatively soon.

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act let the world know that Virginia is open for solar business,” Van Clief said. “And this portfolio says Southwest Virginia is open for business.”   

Now, it’s time to dig in and prove the concept.

“This is a defining moment for our business and for our industry. We couldn’t have scripted better news than this announcement as we’re coming out of a pandemic.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.