U.S. solar developers see opportunity in U.S. post-industrial lands

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HURLEY, Va., June 23 (Reuters) – On a recent spring morning, coal mine operator Dale Murray stood atop an expanse of land in West Virginia that had been dozed off by the open-pit mining on top of a mountain, and he enjoyed the panoramic view it offered of the surrounding Appalachian hills.

CM Mining managing partner Dale Murray (left) and mining engineer Chad Damron pose for a photo at a working coal mine next to a new solar power plant development site in Hurley, West Virginia , USA, May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Dane Rhys

Murray’s company CM Mining bought the thousands of acres of former mining land from Alpha Natural Resources in 2017, reclaiming a parcel of which Murray told Reuters many locals believed “you can’t. nothing to do with “. on an improbable idea for this expanse of coal country: to install a large-scale solar energy project.

Wild horses roam the top of a flattened mountain, a former coal mine, now the site of a solar power plant development project in Hurley, West Virginia, United States, May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Dane rhys

“We believe this is the future in this area,” he said.

New solar and wind power installations are emerging that are giving a new focus to unused degraded spaces across the country, from closed Appalachian coal mines to old phosphate projects in Florida and landfills in New England. The trend is expected to accelerate as President Joe Biden’s administration seeks to develop renewable energy to combat climate change.

A NEED AS BIG AS THE NETHERLANDS

Wind and solar power require at least 10 times more land than fossil fuels to produce the same amount of electricity, according to the Brookings Institution, and the clean energy industry and officials would prefer it not to. do not pile up in wild, arable or necessary areas for town planning.

CM Mining Managing Partner Dale Murray explains real estate leases on an active coal mine located adjacent to a new solar power plant development site in Hurley, West Virginia, USA, May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Dane rhys

Last year there were more than 417 renewable energy installations on once contaminated land in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency examined more than 44 million additional post-industrial acres for renewable energy potential.

Much of that land could end up in demand: Consulting firm Rystad Energy estimates that the Biden administration’s plans to decarbonize the economy will require more than 8.5 million acres for solar farms alone, an area larger than the Netherlands.

“It is vital for us to take this formerly contaminated land and use it for productive purposes,” said Carlton Waterhouse, deputy administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. He said planting renewable energy on contaminated land helps clean up communities, improves the economy and tackles climate change.

Project Manager Duke Coy Graham, Hardee County Economic Development Director Bill Lambert and team members Sarah Pelham and Kristi Schierling pose for a photo at the Hardee County Solar Development Site in Fort Green, Florida , USA, March 24, 2021. REUTERS / Dane Rhys

“PART OF THE PUZZLE”

Post-industrial sites also have some advantages for solar and wind developers, as they are often located near existing transmission infrastructure or in states that offer incentives to developers who use them.

But it can be expensive to prepare and stabilize disturbed land for construction, and insurance requirements can be higher. Nor are facilities a major driver of permanent employment like the mines or factories they replace.

A construction worker walks past a field of metal piles at the Duette solar site under development on previously agricultural land in Bowling Green, Florida, United States, March 24, 2021. REUTERS / Dane Rhys

As Murray spoke, field geologists attached gauges to steel piles driven into the ground and performed a “push-pull test” to verify if the ground was stable enough to erect panels which it hopes. it will generate 75 megawatts by the end of 2023.

Hundreds of workers will build the $ 100 million project, but that will only create six permanent jobs. Buchanan County is seeking $ 2 million in federal funds for the project as part of a state-administered program to reallocate abandoned mining lands.

“This is only part of the puzzle in trying to make our region more attractive and improve our efforts to diversify the economy,” said Will Morefield, a Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates who supports the project. .

DIFFICULT TO COME

In New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, solar projects on contaminated land receive preferential treatment under a renewable energy credit market. The state now has 25 such projects, representing more than a quarter of its large-scale solar capacity, according to state data.

One of them is a 28.9 megawatt solar farm on 117 acres of a former chemical plant in Toms River, built by developer PVOne in partnership with EDF Renewables.

“We are a very small state, a very dense state. Land is hard to find, ”said Elliott Shanley, senior vice president of PVOne.

The project went live in April and is now New Jersey’s largest solar installation and the largest at an EPA Superfund site, EDF said.

The former Ciba-Geigy chemical plant produced organic dyes and specialty chemicals between the 1950s and 1990s. The former owners of the site settled in 2002 a lawsuit for pollution filed by 69 families in the region, including children were diagnosed with cancer.

The site is still being restored with a groundwater treatment system, now powered by part of the new solar power plant, said Stephen Havlik, who manages the site for German chemicals maker BASF which bought Ciba. in 2008.

Most of the rest of the electricity from the new solar farm is fed into the regional electricity grid.

Linda Gillick, a longtime resident of Toms River whose adult son was diagnosed with cancer at the age of three months, said she sees the solar project as a safe option for the earth.

“The positive aspect that emerges is that solar power is a cleaner medium and, hopefully, will help keep the environment clean, even if it is on a highly contaminated site,” he said. she declared.

SYMBOL OF CHANGE

Solar is not always the first choice of managers seeking to enhance a post-industrial site.

When Bill Lambert, economic development manager for Hardee County in central Florida, had to find a productive use for a sprawling old phosphate mine, he first pitched the idea of ​​a liquefied natural gas facility. which would have created hundreds of full-time jobs.

Construction workers Tekovin Miller and Darien Bailey install tilting panel actuators at the Duette solar site which is under development on previously agricultural land in Bowling Green, Florida, United States, March 24, 2021. REUTERS / Dane Rhys

But the community hesitated due to security concerns, so he proposed a solar farm. “We never had a single voice of opposition,” Lambert said.

Duke Energy (DUK.N) is currently building a 75-megawatt solar power plant on 500 acres of land, enough to power 20,000 homes and generate revenue to cover the county’s administrative costs for 30 to 50 years, Lambert said.

“If I had done it my way, if I could publish an edict, I would say Florida should try, where possible, to put all solar power on reclaimed land and not use good farmland, ”he said.

Florida doesn’t offer incentives specifically for renewable energy projects located on brownfields, but it does subsidize all solar projects through a partial rebate in property taxes, according to Duke.

Duke is also building a solar project in neighboring Citrus County on the property of a limestone mine, near the sprawling Crystal River power complex – home to a natural gas-fired power plant, two coal-fired units, and a decommissioned nuclear power plant. .

A field geologist performs soil stability tests at a solar power plant development site at a former coal mine in Hurley, western Virginia, United States, May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Dane Rhys

The two solar projects will create hundreds of construction jobs for months.

But long-term employment prospects are more modest.

A handful of residents are being asked to maintain the facilities primarily by mowing the grass under the solar panels, said Coy Graham, Duke’s project manager.

Other solar sites across the country are using fleets of self-contained electric mowers, or goats and sheep to cut weeds.

David Pieklik, director of economic development for Citrus County, rejects the idea that solar power plants will do little for the economy, arguing that they could help attract companies keen to tap into green energy.

“Something that started out as something that becomes something else, transitions,” Pieklik said. “It takes its own identity, its own life.”

Editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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