Tuesday, January 25, 2022

​​Advocating For Solar Energy Projects On Abandoned Mine Lands

By Kathy Cook,
PA League of Women Voters, Environmental Policy Director

According to the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR) there are over 200,000 acres of abandoned mine land in Pennsylvania.  

This abandoned mine land pre-dates the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) which was enacted in 1977. The Act established federal control over coal mining, coal-mine reclamation and environmental standards. 

Pre-1977 abandoned mine land (AML) has created a huge environmental problem for Pennsylvania. 

Over 7,356 miles of Pennsylvania's 83,000 miles of streams are polluted by drainage from abandoned mines.  [Read more here.]

This abandoned mine drainage (AMD) is identified in the State Management Plan as the largest source of water pollution in Pennsylvania.

EPCAMR is a public nonprofit organization of conservation districts that facilitates the reclamation and remediation of land and water that has been adversely affected by past mining practices.  

EPCAMR serves the entire Anthracite Region and the Northeastern portions of the Bituminous Coal Fields region of Pennsylvania.  

There is a Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (WPCAMR) which performs similar duties in Western Pennsylvania. 

EPCAMR received a $25,000 grant from the Just Transition Fund for 2022.  The purpose of this grant is to advocate for solar development on AML.  [Read more here.]

“We will provide outreach and build partnerships across the state to get our message out,” said EPCAMR Director Bobby Hughes.  “The grant will also help continue development of our Solar Site Selection Criteria GIS Suitability Modeling Tool for GIS.”  

Hughes went on to say, “the EPCAMR GIS tool currently covers the Anthracite Region, but we want to partner with other groups across the state to add additional data layers into the tool to map the whole state.”

Hughes explained, “we find it very valuable to now be able to network with other coalitions across Central Appalachia as we continue to educate our communities and community leaders on additional innovative ways to reclaim our historic legacy abandoned mine lands.”

He added, “there are around 400 grid-scale solar projects seeking approval to connect to the grid in Pennsylvania. This represents almost 80,000 acres of potential land needs, so there is great interest in finding ways to encourage or guide this development to areas where it makes sense from a conservation or reclamation perspective.” 

“This could also have the effect of reducing pressure on other lands, such as prime farmland and forest lands.” 

Hughes hopes to talk to Chambers of Commerce, commercial real estate developers, county redevelopment authorities and private landowners.  

Many private landowners don’t know if their lands qualify as abandoned mine lands. This is where EPCAMR can help.  The nonprofit can identify AML as well as locate grant programs that landowners could be eligible for.

According to Tina Carr, Director of Stakeholder Outreach for AC Power, a woman-owned, mission-driven brownfield solar developer, “Successful development of a site requires partnerships among various stakeholders. EPCAMR can assist with identifying sites, as it is aware of AML sites that are ready for redevelopment.” 

Local officials and citizens could suggest sites for redevelopment as well.  

Ms. Carr went on to say, “ a solar developer’s expertise is required to assess the feasibility of siting a solar installation at the location under review.”

Ms. Carr added, “AC Power will evaluate the site’s topography and determine the size and scope of a solar array that a site can support using solar design software and given specifics such as slope, terrain, orientation, as well as assess the proximity to and availability of interconnection to the electric grid.

“A formerly-mined site requires additional studies during this initial phase such as a geotechnical analysis to determine what type of solar racking is feasible.  These additional needs challenge the timeline and certainty of a project.”  

She acknowledged the insurmountable risk early on as well as creatively identifying development paths forward is essential in the business of brownfield solar development.

She listed the following benefits for building solar farms on abandoned mine lands

-- Provide energy cost savings for municipal accounts; 

-- Provide energy cost saving for local residents, entities, the school district, local businesses that subscribe to that array’s energy output If community solar is permitted;

-- Improve local grid resiliency by diversification of energy capacity; 

-- Supply capacity that can reduce the need for operating expensive peaker plants to meet high system peak loads, thus reducing wholesale electricity costs;

-- Local engineers, contractors, installers, and workforce are employed during development and maintenance of the Project;

-- Create permanent workforce development programs using the project’s visibility and as a demonstration site; and

-- Foster community support for environmental education by leveraging the solar project.

Former Lycoming County Planning Commission Executive, Jerry Walls, FAICP, agreed with Carr and listed some other major benefits, “Old mine operations may already have power line connections to the grid as well as decent road access for construction crews.” 

Walls added, “Reuse for a revenue producer will help the owner and the municipal/county/school district tax base.  Solar projects can also provide grasslands for reduction of stormwater runoff and for sheep grazing.”

According to Ron Celentano, President of the PA Solar and Storage Industries Association, “Solar farms only occupy about 5-8 acres of land per megawatt (AC) capacity.  Currently we have only a little more than 0.5 percent of Pennsylvania’s electric consumption being generated from solar photovoltaic and most of that is residential or small commercial solar on rooftops.”  

Solar is an efficient land use method.  

Celentano explained, “less than 0.3 percent of Pennsylvania’s total land area would be required by grid-scale solar or solar farms to generate about 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s annual electric consumption. Pennsylvania ranks 22nd in the nation for total solar PV installed per capita.”

Clearly, there is huge growth potential for this industry.

According to Tim Williams, Director of Growth for ARM Group, a Hershey-based civil/environmental engineering firm, “Our team of engineers is currently working on three utility-scale solar projects in Pennsylvania that are located on abandoned mine lands.  

“Each project is in a different stage of development- from design, permitting and construction. One of the three projects is expected to come online by the end of this year.  The other two are scheduled to come online in 2023.”

Solar projects on abandoned mine lands are being promoted in West Virginia by The Nature Conservancy, Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia University Law Center for Energy and Sustainable Development.  [Read more here.]

They feel that these projects will create new jobs and retrain laid-off workers.  Another advantage would be that new manufacturers and employees would move to the regions where these projects are built.  

According to their “Roadmap on Solar on Minefields” document, solar projects on minefields would replenish a much-needed tax base. create new revenue streams for mine owners and minimize land conflicts from all forms of energy.

(Photo: Solar energy installation on West Virginia reclaimed mine - The Nature Conservancy.)

Kathy Cook is PA League of Women Voters Environmental Director and she can be contacted by sending email to: environmentalpolicy@palwv.org

Related Articles:

-- Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition Supports EPCAMR Partnership To Develop Solar Energy On Mine Reclamation Sites

-- Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition Highlights Projects To Restore Old Coal Sites, Including EPCAMR Solar Energy Redevelopment On Abandoned Mine Sites

Related Article This Week:

-- Federal Office Of Surface Mine Reclamation Awards PA $25 Million For Mine Reclamation With Environmental, Economic, Recreation, Solar Energy Benefits  

[Posted: January 25, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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