Solar farms could adorn former mountaintop-removal coal mines


Like Moses before them, two companies in Eastern Kentucky have gone to the mountaintop – at least what’s left of it – and they’ve seen the future. And the future for two former mountaintop-removal coal mines, as they see it, lies with solar power.

Berkeley Energy Group, an Eastern Kentucky coal mining company, is partnering with EDF Renewable Energy to turn two former mountaintop-removal coal mine sites into the state’s largest solar farms. Engineering and feasibility studies are already under way on the project, which would be located on the sites near Pikeville, Kentucky.

If built, the project, which is expected to have between 50 and 100 MW in capacity, will be between five and 10 times larger than Kentucky’s current largest solar farm – a 10-MW project located 178 miles due east of Pikeville in Mercer County. The partners are touting the project as, potentially, Appalachia’s first large-scale solar project.

At this early stage of the project, no hard job numbers are available, but for Pikeville – where unemployment is 11.6% (more than twice the national rate) and the median income isn’t far off the federal poverty rate – any new employment would be welcome.

Ryan Johns, an executive with Berkeley, told the Louisville Courier-Journal:

I grew up with coal… Our company has been in the coal business for 30 years. We are not looking at this as trying to replace coal, but we have already extracted the coal from this area.

In the article, Johns added that the plan is just an extension of using that land to produce energy for the nation while putting out-of-work coal miners back to work.

Outsiders might be forgiven for experiencing whiplash at that final statement.

After all, national and local politicians have demonized solar as destroying coal mines and their miners. And solar might not seem like a logical choice for a town like Pikeville, whose motto fairly screams mountaintop-removal coal mining: “The City That Moves Mountains”. But once the coal is extracted from a mountaintop removal mine (MRM), it’s difficult to find other uses for the land.

To extract coal through mountaintop removal, explosives remove 400 vertical feet of mountain to expose underlying coal seams. The process is less expensive to do and uses fewer employees, and was first used in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Its use remains primarily in the Appalachian region.

Kentucky is currently home to 1,202 solar jobs, according to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Survey, including 725 installation jobs. Pike County, where Pikeville is located, has the fifth largest number of jobs in the state.

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