The former Red Onion surface mine.
The former Red Onion surface mine. Credit: The Nature Conservancy / Courtesy

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Chatter about the potential of covering played-out coalfields in central Appalachia with solar arrays has simmered for years. Progress on the first pair of such projects is on the verge of coming to a full boil because a nonprofit pursued a pair of companies with the technical know-how.

The Nature Conservancy is partnering with utility giant Dominion Energy to install roughly 50 megawatts of solar power on 1,200 acres of the former Red Onion surface mine and surrounding properties in Virginia’s Wise and Dickenson counties. That’s enough to power 12,500 homes at peak output.

That September update came on the heels of a mid-May announcement that the conservancy had joined with Sun Tribe, a Charlottesville solar developer, and Washington, D.C.-based Sol Systems to construct up to 75 MW of solar nearby. Those half dozen sites range in size from 70 to 125 acres. Four are in Wise County, one is in Dickenson County and a sixth is in Tennessee.

Brad Kreps Credit: The Nature Conservancy / Courtesy

Virginia native Brad Kreps, who directs the conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, said solar projects have been top of mind since 2019 when the nonprofit acquired the 253,000-acre Cumberland Forest property. An estimated 13,000 acres of cleared minelands pock the biologically rich landscape that stretches across Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

All but 100,000 acres of the Cumberland Forest are in the historic Virginia coal counties of Wise, Dickenson, Russell and Buchanan.

“For us, acquiring the Cumberland Forest property and becoming a landowner put us in a stronger position to actually try this,” said Kreps, an Abingdon resident with two decades of conservancy experience. “It gave us a chance to reach out to partners and say, ‘Help us really look at this, find sites that are viable, and create value for nature and people.’”

Both Sun Tribe and Dominion expect the showcase projects—with a combined output of around 120 to 125 MW — to be online within the next two or three years.

“It was incumbent on us to go out and find companies that are compatible with our values and approach,” Kreps said.

Dominion is seeking to expand its renewable energy portfolio because the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which took effect in July 2020, requires the utility to generate 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.

Kreps and the conservancy credit the landmark legislation as the linchpin that allowed the state to muscle its way to the forefront on generating renewable energy where fossil fuels were once harvested.

For instance, the landmark legislation requires that Dominion procure 200 MW of solar or wind on brownfields, coal-mined lands and other previously developed sites such as parking lots by 2035. It allows the utility to venture outside its service territory boundaries to do so. 

Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development for the advocacy organization Appalachian Voices, praised the conservancy for its pioneering spirit. Wells has plenty of experience trying to launch rooftop solar projects in the coalfields of Virginia — and beyond.

“It’s a venture into the unknown,” Wells said, adding that it’s more likely to be successful due to the conservancy’s heft, expertise and long history of collaboration. “The advantage of the nonprofit structure is that it’s able to absorb risk.”

In this interview with the Energy News Network, Kreps explains the conservancy’s approach to renewable energy development on previously disturbed lands. This piece was lightly edited for clarity and length.  

Q: First, why did the conservancy acquire the Cumberland Forest property in 2019? 

A: Context matters, so it’s important for people to understand that the Appalachian Mountains are one of the conservancy’s top priorities. Our organization has selected these mountains, which extend from Alabama to Canada, as one of the top four landscapes on Earth to address climate change challenges and biodiversity. The other three are Kenya, Borneo and the Amazon. 

We set up a private limited partnership to be able to acquire land at scale in the Cumberland Forest. First and foremost, our goal is to protect and conserve the forest. We also want to help people by managing the area in a way that supports the economic transition and diversification of the region. That means we’re also working on outdoor tourism and recreation.

Solar is beneficial because it generates clean energy and brings new investment to former minelands.

Being successful with the Cumberland Forest model will lead us to big, ambitious conservation projects in the greater Appalachian corridor.

Q: People have talked about installing solar panels on deforested minelands for years. The conservancy is actually doing it. Is it daunting to lead on this front? 

A: The conservancy loves a good challenge. It’s exciting to be on the leading edge. These are some of the first projects — in the whole country, not just central Appalachia — to demonstrate that we can build solar on former minelands.

One of the most important aspects is that we are learning a tremendous amount by doing. At some point, you have to take the bull by the horns.

Q: What is the timeline for Highlands Solar, the just-announced project with Dominion?

A: We are the landowner and have leased the development opportunity to Dominion Energy, so Dominion drives the timeline. It looks as if construction will happen on a 2024-25 schedule.

The way I try to explain it is that the preconstruction part of the project takes several years and has a lot of different pieces. It’s a really important behind-the-scenes process. That includes a site assessment to determine which areas are suitable for arrays, figuring out the condition of the land, working on an interconnection agreement to tie into the electric grid, installing infrastructure, and getting the appropriate local, state and environmental permits.

Once built, it will operate for roughly 35 years. After that, there’s the reclamation phase because as a landowner we want assurances so we can decide the future of that land.

Q: Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia, called the project a “huge win” for the region’s economy. How does that translate to local tax revenues and local jobs? 

A: I don’t have specific numbers but I’m confident about tax revenues being generated.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act sets the framework, but the specifics on tax revenue structure happens in conversations between the solar developer and the local communities. 

Similarly, we are confident these projects will create jobs in all the phases. The developers do all of the hiring. We are urging them to connect with local people and we think they are interested in doing that.

I should also note that the developers of both projects are very interested in local job training and workforce development. In tandem with construction, the conservancy will be working with the developers to devise a broader community benefits plan that involves businesses, nonprofits, area governments and community colleges.

Q: What’s the status of the solar project you announced in May, with Sun Tribe and Sol Systems?

A: Since the announcement, they have been busy. They are rolling up their sleeves and going through the checklist of things they need to work through to get to construction. They are in the predevelopment phase where they are moving forward with site assessment and interconnection.

Q: How do these solar projects mesh with your organization’s wheelhouse of undertaking conservation with the looming threat of climate change?

A: There are lots of tools in the toolbox when it comes to mitigating climate change. First, our leading priority in the Cumberland Forest is to conserve and manage existing forests as carbon sinks and as habitat for an array of species.

To achieve anything on the climate change front, we have to be aggressive on renewable energy. A big part of our platform is being smart about where we site renewable energy projects. By keying in on former surface mines, we can increase clean energy production and keep the surrounding forest intact.

Q: If you get pushback from members wondering why you’re pursuing solar instead of reforesting the minelands, what do you tell them?

A: We are going to do both and we’re going to be smart about where we do solar and where we do reforestation. About 85% of the Cumberland Forest is forested and about 15% is minelands.

Remember, we’re trying to manage the forest to create benefits for nature and people, so we’re seeking the optimal outcome. In some places, we think solar is the winner because minelands are flat, large enough and near utility infrastructure. On other parts of the minelands we are going to plant trees because reforesting makes the most sense.

It’s not an either/or; it’s all of the above.

Q: Your Virginia projects add up to an estimated 120 megawatts of solar energy. How does that move the needle on climate change?

A: It’s a small step. The value of these projects is the concept. We’re trying to show we can successfully build solar on these former minelands.

When we look regionally and at our neighbors in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, many of those minelands could be great sites for solar projects. We’re trying to lead by doing and create a successful approach.

Hopefully when we revisit that question, we will see other solar projects pop up in central Appalachia. It may only be 120 megawatts, but they’re really important megawatts. If we generate them, we’ll be unlocking more solar.

Q: Is there a limit to the number of megawatts of solar projects the Cumberland Forest property can support?

A: Yes, there is a limit. Solar is part of a bigger strategy where we’re taking a targeted approach. By that filter alone, there is a limit because we’re not going to convert existing forest to solar projects.

Q: When will you be announcing the next project in Virginia? 

A: We don’t have any plans for that right now. We’re focused on helping our first two batches of projects be successful.

Once these Virginia projects get up and running, we will evaluate opportunities in Tennessee and Kentucky. Interest was high in Virginia because of the Virginia Clean Economy Act. Tennessee and Kentucky don’t have that enabling legislation.

Q: You’ve talked about your initial projects serving as a model for other coal mining regions in the United States. How does that happen?

A: The conservancy definitely has a bigger vision at a national level that we call Mining the Sun. That initiative is driven by the concept of how can we repurpose former minelands, both coal and hardrock, for renewable energy. We also want to help bring reinvestment to communities that are transitioning.

Every state is a little different, so it’s important to share ideas and bring other states along. For instance, the Virginia Clean Economy Act is an enabling policy because it sent a signal to the market and utilities that this is where the state wants to go. We want to learn how that legislation can be a model for other states.

Q: And lastly, it has been a busy year for the conservancy. When you’re not focused on work, what are three of your favorite pursuits?

A: I’m an outdoor junkie. Being out in those beautiful Appalachian Mountains, camping, paddling, rock climbing and hiking restores my passion for conserving these landscapes. 

I also play drums in a band. We shut down in the early stages of the pandemic, but now practice on my back porch and are able to do outdoor performances.

We’re constantly trying to think of a new name because we hate our name, “The Boys.” We started with bluegrass and morphed into a fusion of bluegrass with funk and jazz. We joke about being an Appalachian band with an identity crisis.

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.