Appalachian Phoenix: solar rises in the heart of the United States’ dying coal industry

Closed and abandoned surface mines, often flattened, despoiled and desolate, can make ideal sites for re-purposing into clean energy centers. For over a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that renewable energy projects be installed on former mined lands, particularly closed mountain top removal sites. Though solar is the fastest growing source of new electricity across the United States, developers are only now starting to install panels throughout central Appalachia, the long-suffering heart of America’s once dominant coal sector. Now following the passage of President Joe Biden’s $370 billion Inflation Recovery Act (IRA), loaded with clean energy construction incentives, a solar revolution lies just over yonder. Lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum, reviews the state of transformation in the third part of his coal to solar series. Read part 1part 2 and part 4.

Wind turbines in Lycoming Creek, Pennsylvania (Credits: FracTracker Alliance | Flickr. Credits: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Recovering Reality

The product of perhaps too much political compromise, one of the IRA’s main intents is to spark a mass buildout of wind, solar and energy storage projects nationwide while creating new jobs in communities where livelihoods once depended on coal.

Central to the IRA is a system of tax credits, with additional incentives if development occurs at former coal mines or coal-fired power plants.

Vital to Appalachia: the IRA has handed the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) a $500 million program to spur construction of clean energy pilot projects upon current, former and abandoned coal mines.

It also provides a total of $11.3 billion in abandoned mine land grant funding at the Department of the Interior to eligible states and Tribes to help communities eliminate dangerous environmental hazards and pollution caused by past coal mining.

The IRA also enables coal powerplant or mine-site repurposing projects to cut through various spools of red tape, particularly if projects can utilize already existing transmission lines.

Given that before the Act received President Biden’s signature it was already cheaper across the U.S. to install new renewable energy capacity than keeping old coal power plants running, it’s passage is a further signal to investors that the coal age is rapidly drawing to an end.

It has “definitely improved the economics of the ‘coal to clean’ transition in terms of making renewables cheaper,” says Michelle Solomon, policy analyst for electricity at the energy and climate think tank Energy Innovation. The IRA’s benefit is especially big, she says, in communities with an existing coal plant, where there’s now an extra 10% tax credit for new renewable projects.

The law also extends existing tax credits for wind and solar power while adding new tax credits for renewable projects with batteries attached, a necessary add-on for them to compete with baseload fossil power.

Playing West Virginian politics

Getting the IRA passed required the consent of several powerful coal state politicians, particularly throughout Appalachia where the industry has been fundamental to regional economies since the 1850s.

Though coal employment has crashed, in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia and especially West Virginia, coal remains central to cultural identity. Locals are proud of the role generations of miners played in the U.S.’s industrialization and emergence as a global power after World War Two.

But as coal slides into terminal decline nationwide, today barely 12,000 miners are employed across West Virginia — its lowest total since 1890 when investors and railroads started flocking to its vast coalfields.

Though mechanization has also contributed to falling employment, so is plummeting coal production. Output peaked nationwide at nearly 1.2 billion tons in 2008, with West Virginia still churning out over 165 million tons. But in the nearly 15 years since, between fracking and advances in solar and wind, in 2021 it roughly halved. In West Virginia — still the nation’s second biggest coal producer after Wyoming — extraction totals have crashed to less than half of the state’s 1997 peak, coming in at just under 90 million tonnes in 2021.

The socio-economic results of this have been catastrophic. Fifth poorest nationwide, it’s the only U.S. state whose population has declined since 1950. West Virginians have the lowest level of higher education attainment in the nation and the second-shortest life expectancy in the country.

Yet the state’s grid is by far and away the nation’s most coal dependent as 90% of its electricity is generated by burning the fossil fuel. With renewables seen as a threat to cultural identities, promises to end Washington’s “war on coal” and bring the industry back helped sway over two-thirds of the state’s voters to back former President Trump twice, far more than anywhere else.

Today governed by billionaire coal magnate Jim Justice, who has the word “Coal” on his personalized license plate, the industry has long enjoyed federal protection by West Virginia’s Congressional delegation, none more so than the millionaire, Maserati-driving and house-boat dwelling Senator Joe Manchin. Himself a former governor, his family owns and profits from a highly polluting waste-coal burning power plant.

No individual embodies the political complexities at the heart of America’s energy transition as much as Manchin, a Democrat who has been re-elected three times despite representing this Republican stronghold.

Ensuring that both West Virginia and the fossil fuel industry could benefit from the IRA was the price of his support. And it was Manchin who ultimately cast the deciding vote in America’s divided Senate.

Under terms he helped dictate, the IRA also pumps funds into carbon capture projects that proponents hope will prolong the lives of existing fossil gas and coal plants. It also supports the development of grey and black hydrogen, produced from gas and coal despite their terrible environmental costs.

Nevertheless, by backing the IRA, Manchin sent a critical message that coal is not coming back and West Virginia needs to move on.

Clean energy projects coming to Appalachia’s coal fields

 Even before the IRA’s passage, developers had begun trickling into central Appalachia, drawn by its energy infrastructure and position within the country’s biggest electricity marketplace. Now they are starting to flood it.

Across over 3,000 acres of the former Hobet mountaintop removal strip mine, once one of the largest in West Virginia, developers are in advanced planning for the construction of the 250 MW solar farm set to power the adjacent SunPark industrial and recreational areas.

Nearby Coalfield Development, a West Virginia nonprofit, is helming eight solar projects including the Black Diamond initiative where a shuttered mine is being transformed into a regional hub for solar and renewable energy operations complete with a shipping warehouse.

Solar Holler, a solar panel manufacturer, will also set up some of its operation there as Coalfield Development partners with West Virginia University, the WV Community Development Hub and The Nature Conservancy, to retrain workers for the region’s next energy chapter.

With funding ensured by the IRA’s passage, these and other pilot projects are set to spearhead Appalachia’s first clean industrial revolution.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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