Empty freight cars line the railroad tracks as far as the eye can see from Tim Jennings’s backyard in Dante — a town of less than 600 residents.
In southwest Virginia, abandoned coal mines are being transformed into solar installations that will be large enough to contribute renewable energy to the electric grid. Six old mining sites owned by the Nature Conservancy will be some of the first utility-scale solar farms in the region — and the nonprofit group hopes it’s creating a model that can be replicated nationwide.
In 2019, the Nature Conservancy acquired 253,000 acres of forest in the central Appalachian Mountains that it calls the Cumberland Forest Project. It’s one small part of the group’s efforts in the mountain range, which reaches from Alabama to Canada.
“We’ve identified the Appalachians as one of the most important places on Earth for us to do conservation,” says Brad Kreps, the Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley program director, who is leading the solar projects. “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 around Virginia’s coal fields region. Solar developers partnering with the Nature Conservancy, such as Dominion Energy and Sun Tribe, say the mine sites have vast flat areas exposed to sunlight that are a rarity in the mountains, and the sites offer advantages like being close to transmission lines.
“In the coalfield region, there’s about 100,000 acres that’s been impacted from mining,” points out Daniel Kestner with 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.
Nationwide coal mining jobs dropped from more than 175,000 in 1985 to about 40,000 in 2020, according to a recent Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities report. Solar won’t replace what was once reliable long-term work. The jobs will primarily be in construction.
Lou Wallace, Board of Supervisors chairperson for Russell County, Va., is pushing for counties in the coal fields to diversify their economies. She’s been promoting the beauty of the area’s rivers and mountains for recreation and tourism. Her family relied 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 reimagine how we produce the energy. So we’re still able to say we’re keeping the lights on somewhere.”