Solar Energy in the Heart of Coal Country

a guest post by Ken Whiteside, Director of Business Development at ONTILITY, LLC.

Solar Energy in the Heart of Coal Country

Back in the early days of the current renewable energy boom, say 2008, there was much clamoring from some quarters about replacing fossil fuels with renewables for generating electricity. Putting their argument in "either/or" terms – either you were "for" renewable energy, or you were "for" fossil fuels – was contentious, divisive and largely unhelpful. And unrealistic. Yes, eventually renewables may indeed replace fossil fuels (The NREL Renewable Electricity Future Study projects that it will be feasible to produce 80 percent of America's power from renewables by 2050.), but not until some enormous technological advances are made, and some sticky social and political issues are resolved. Meanwhile, we’ve got to keep the lights on.

Enter the "all of the above" approach. Some of us have been touting it for years, saying that energy policy should be all about "and" instead of "either/or." Now, most energy industry and government leaders, including the President, have picked up the theme. In few other places, though, is this approach being demonstrated in a more dramatic way than in the heart of coal country; Central Appalachia where a team of visionaries from West Virginia and Kentucky have come up with a plan for developing sustainable energy sources and increasing economic diversification. You can read report here: 2013 CASE Study – Energy Integration: An Evaluation of Solar in West Virginia by Sustainable Williamson.

According to National Resource Defense Council, only 11 percent of surface mine land has been reclaimed and put to any beneficial economic purpose – most commonly golf courses and industrial parks. Most of the reclaimed land is fallow, sown in grass to rebuild the soil lost to mining. The case study recommends using a small portion of this land as sites where the region will be redeveloped as a leader in smarter energy technologies through an "integrated path forward."

This approach calls for using assets that reclaimed surface mines have in abundance: unobstructed exposure to sunlight for solar arrays, natural gas for steady electrical output, resources for biomass R & D, and, oh yeah, coal. These resources combine into an innovative economic development tool appropriately deemed "Integrated Energy Parks" or "IEP" model (See video for an overview).

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Appalachian coal mining will never be significantly more productive than it is now. So, the IEP model will provide jobs to help offset those lost as coal mining employment continues to decline.

We habitually look to already successful and booming solar markets for innovation – California, New Jersey, etc. I find the IEP model both refreshing and instructive. Refreshing in that it comes from an area we don’t typically associate with advanced energy initiatives, and instructive because it demonstrates how an “all of the above” approach can benefit everyone.

Ken Whiteside photo Ken Whiteside has been a fan of solar energy for decades. His first hands-on experience was installing solar on off-grid houses around Telluride, Colorado in the 1990’s (summer in the San Juan Mtns. - somebody had to do it). From his home in Austin, Ken writes and works for widespread adoption of solar electricity, smart energy production and use, and sustainability.
 

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