Mining the Sun: Nevada and West Virginia are using solar panels to reclaim abandoned mine lands.

Two states with vastly different identities have recently, and fortuitously, found themselves at the forefront of clean energy opportunity.


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The eastern one is dominated by historic undulating mountains and thick hardwood forests. The western is distinguished by the deserts that stretch between its mountains and are home to scraggly trees that predate the Pyramids. However, these states have one feature that has unexpectedly prepared them for prospective solar energy development: mining.


West Virginia Mine Lands to Get Solar

With its steep topography and rich tradition of mining coal, there are few areas that may appear less suitable for renewable energy than West Virginia. In reality, the state may be about to see a dramatic flip of the switch.


West Virginia's extensive coal mining history has resulted in what many consider to be excellent preconditions for solar development—hundreds of square miles of previously cleared mine areas awaiting rehabilitation. Many of these sites have existing road infrastructure, electrical connections, and are reasonably close to major energy markets.


Leaders, businesses, and communities in West Virginia are starting to seize this opportunity. During the most recent session of the West Virginia Legislature, legislators debated four solar-friendly proposals in an attempt to grab some of the 240,000 jobs and billions of dollars in annual investment in the United States' burgeoning solar energy sector. One bill, which will open the door to solar development in the state and includes a provision for solar to be sited on former surface mines, has already passed and is on its way to the governor for signature.

There are more than 100,000 acres of former mine lands and other brownfields in West Virginia that could be suitable for solar development.

According to a Downstream Strategies report, West Virginia has approximately 100,000 acres of former mining grounds and other brownfields that could be appropriate for solar development. The Nature Conservancy is currently collaborating with a growing group of state leaders—policymakers, landowners, mining firms, and large industrial electricity users—to achieve this significant economic revitalization potential. TNC is also conducting additional research to evaluate which of these lands would be best suitable for solar in West Virginia and the greater Central Appalachian region.



Formerly mined lands, if successful, will once again supply domestic energy and economic benefits to our local and national populations. And, by directing solar development to former mine lands and brownfields, we divert development away from forests, preserving the values they provide to West Virginia: clean water, wildlife, and carbon storage, which benefits the forestry, outdoor recreation, and tourism industries. Installing solar on these locations is a win for nature, our economy, and the climate.


Nevada Mines to Solar

Nevada, on the other end of the spectrum and country, has long been associated with the sun and solar energy. But what many people don’t realise about Nevada is that it’s also the number one hardrock mining state in the US, with large gold, silver, and copper mine areas peppering the state.


These Nevada mine sites, like those in West Virginia, have existing road and power line infrastructure, making them appealing for solar development.



According to a Rocky Mountain Institute analysis, Nevada has more than 1 million acres of potential minefields and brownfield sites. TNC estimates that if developed with solar power, their solar energy generation potential in Nevada is 20,219 megawatts—enough to power 3.8 million homes.

If Nevada's former minefields and brownfields are developed with solar power, their solar energy generation potential could be 20,219 megawatts—enough to power 3.8 million homes.

Nevada state leaders, like those in West Virginia, have taken note of this potential source of local jobs and cash. Last year, Nevada's state environmental commission amended mining regulations to include renewable energy as a beneficial post-use of mine sites.


While West Virginia and Nevada are on the cutting edge, they are not the only places in the country with the potential to achieve the "win-win-win" of locating renewable energy on mine lands—the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 43 million acres of brownfields and former mine lands could be suitable for mining the sun.



The nation and the world face significant hurdles in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. However, the capacity to "mine the sun" demonstrates that there is hope and opportunity in unexpected locations to aid communities, nature, and the economy.

 

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