The United States is reprioritizing where it sources its energy. Over the last 13 years, the country has shuttered more coal mines than it has opened. As of 2020, there were 551 mines in the United States (out of that group, 37% of them idled operations) compared to more than 1,200 active mines in 2008.
What remains after coal extraction makes site conditions difficult for redevelopment, but contractors are finding luck replacing the fossil fuel operations with solar arrays. Utility-scale solar developers are already planning and constructing arrays across coal communities. Savion is developing a state-sanctioned, 200-MW solar project on a former coal mine in Kentucky; Competitive Power Ventures has a 127-MW project under development in Pennsylvania and another 175-MW project in Maryland; J-POWER USA and Birchwood Solar are developing a 50-MW solar + storage project at a former coal plant in Virginia.
Then anticipating the energy shift, Michigan utility Consumers Energy announced in June its plans to cease coal use by 2025.
“It’s a transition of power. You’re using something that was a previous generation of technology and you’re adapting that to what is the future,” said Michael Faraone, director of engineering at Terrasmart.
Terrasmart, a turnkey solar structure manufacturer and civil services provider, has several projects on the docket that will cover coal mining operations. The company has a reputation for producing ground-mounts that perform in difficult soil conditions, a common issue among former coal sites. The process of extracting coal leaves behind mine tailings, a mixture of different soils and rocks pulled from the earth that has low compaction, like fill dirt, and makes it difficult for developing that land for residential or commercial purposes.
Unlike landfills and certain brownfields, the ground can be penetrated at coal sites, giving installers more options than ballast foundations. However, there are additional considerations required for determining a former coal site’s compaction rate.
More than a quarter of the country’s coal is produced in the Appalachian region, where many of these solar projects are sited. In early 2021, a coalition of groups from Appalachia issued a report with plans to redevelop abandoned coal mines and brownfields in six states with solar.
“Though this past year has presented many challenges, we’ve seen communities in Appalachia continue to drive toward economic diversification with creative and innovative reclamation projects,” said Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices.
The coalition expects more coal companies to file bankruptcy and abandon operations from the economic pressures of COVID-19. As of October, 241 coal-fired power plants are on track to be decommissioned.
With both the extraction sites and power plants for coal disappearing, it’s up to renewables to replace and repower sites that were once economic drivers for many communities.