Virginia’s legacy coal country looks to solar for economic growth


Virginia has made it clear this year that solar energy will play a leading role in its future, and the Commonwealth’s southwest region is no exception.

To ensure that Virginia’s coal country doesn’t miss out on opportunities in large-scale solar, the Solar Foundation and the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia have developed a step-by-step guide for how municipalities and counties can encourage utility-scale or commercial solar projects.

“So many barriers [to solar] have been removed by recent legislation, but like anywhere, local and state approval processes [will still] need to take place,” said Ed Gilliland, senior director at The Solar Foundation and co-author of Large-Scale Solar Development: A Playbook for Southwest Virginia.

The playbook includes guidance on engaging stakeholders, identifying and resolving barriers, reviewing development proposals and adopting local planning and zoning regulations to facilitate solar energy in legacy coal country.

“A lot of municipalities and counties in Southwest Virginia don’t have staff specialized in these areas,” Gilliland said.

With a view to maximizing the solar playbook’s utility, its authors held one-on-one meetings with public officials from the target counties.

Facilitating solar in Southwest Virginia is not as simple as “put solar on abandoned mine lands,” said Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development for Appalachian Voices, project lead and co-convener of the Solar Workgroup. To do even that, permitting, financing, access to land, interconnections and community acceptance all need to line up, he said.

“There is an abundant – not an infinite – amount of opportunities [in Southwest Virginia],” Wells said.

Many large-scale solar projects are already under development in the region. They include a 3 MW project on abandoned mine land that will power the Mineral Gap Data Center in Wise County. And although coal remains part of the region’s economy, interest runs high in expanding employment opportunities, increasing the local tax base and sowing interest in attracting industries that value a solar-friendly setting, officials said.

According to a Downstream Strategies’ study released in 2017, under an aggressive solar development scenario, utility-scale installations in southwestern Virginia over a 10-year period could support about 212 jobs – including project development and onsite jobs, supply chain jobs and induced jobs.

Southwest Virginia’s previously mined lands generally fall into two categories – abandoned mine lands (AML) that existed before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and post-law coal mines. Both types typically have access to electric transmission lines. Unlike coal mines that existed before the 1977 Act, which tend to be small, post-law coal mines are often large-scale mountaintop removal sites

The stars aligned

“The [playbook’s] timing is lucky,” Wells said. The bipartisan, business-led economic development initiative GO Virginia and the national SolSmart program provided funding for the project in mid-2019, and Virginia passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act this past April.

Under the state’s Clean Economy Act, coal-fired power plants have to close by 2024, and electricity must transition to 100% renewable sources. The law requires utility companies Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power to be carbon-free by 2045 and 2050, respectively. It also stipulates that energy companies that miss their targets will face penalties; part of the revenue generated from penalties must be used to fund job training and renewable energy programs in historically disadvantaged communities.

Virginia’s clean energy act also established a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions from power plants and is in compliance with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). RGGI is a joint cap-and-trade program committed to reducing carbon dioxide from the power sector in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

As of January 1 Virginia becomes a full RGGI member and the first southern state in the program. Funds generated from RGGI will be used to pursue Clean Energy Virginia and to help the Commonwealth meet the goals of its Clean Economy Act.

Virginia also is in the process of expanding its commercial property assessed clean energy (C-PACE) program. C-PACE is a clean energy financing tool that provides 100% upfront capital to property owners who want to upgrade their buildings with energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water management systems.

Mining’s legacy

As part of a larger purchase of a quarter-million acres of forest land in the Central Appalachian coalfields, the global conservation organization The Nature Conservancy in July 2018 acquired 153,000 acres in Southwest Virginia. The Nature Conservancy said one of the goals of this initiative, called Cumberland Forest Project, is to blend conservation and economic development, including solar deployment.

“They want solar to happen, but just for a modest return, so that the project pays for itself,” Wells said.

The Cumberland Forest Project is noteworthy because getting landowners in Virginia’s coal country to install solar might be a more challenging proposition. But the Cumberland Forest Project will take advantage of the idea that sustainable forestry can generate revenues through timber harvesting, carbon offset sales and recreational leases.

The Nature Conservancy said that it views the Cumberland Forest Project as an investment through which it can leverage decades of research and forestry expertise to offer a new perspective on the economic value of nature.

For a large swath of Virginia’s historic coal country, that perspective may well include solar.

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