Editorials, Opinion

From coal mine to solar farm

Tomorrow is Earth Day: a celebration of our planet and a call-to-action to help take care of it. This often involves community-wide clean-up efforts and education outreach. The former tends to include things like litter pick-ups or recycling events.

The latter usually includes reiterating the “3 Rs of Waste Management” — reduce, reuse and recycle. It’s a pithy reminder to reduce the amount of waste we create (not buying more food than we can eat or using more electricity than necessary), to reuse whatever we can (repurposing containers or textiles for new projects) and to recycle single-use materials so they can get a second life (like cardboard and plastic bottles). And it’s usually in the context of actions that we, personally, can take to help the environment and cut down on pollution.

The same principles, however, can be applied on a larger scale. A solar project in Nicholas County will take “reuse” and “reduce” to a new level: “A Model for Transition: Coal-to-Solar in West Virginia” received a $129 million grant from the Department of Energy to build a solar farm on land that previously hosted two coal mines.

This project applies “reuse” to a larger scale. Solar farms require ample space free of obstructions, so the panels can collect the most light possible. Unfortunately, that usually means they have to be set up on flat, otherwise farmable or buildable land. However, the former mine sites provide that large, flat(-ish) space that’s perfect for planting rows and rows of solar panels. Plus, transmission infrastructure is already in place to get the solar-generated power into the regional grid.

As for “reduce,” this solar array is designed to produce 250 megawatts of clean power — enough to power 39,000 homes, according to the project’s summary. (In comparison, the new solar plant up here at Fort Martin is only 19 MW. That will reduce literal tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that would be released into the air and surrounding water sources.)

Solar plants like the one that will be built in Nicholas County and the one built at Fort Martin aren’t just good for the earth. They are also good for the communities that got left behind when coal mines stopped producing. Fort Martin’s coal-fired plant outside Maidsville is still operational, but the mine sites in Nicholas County have been abandoned for a while, and the surrounding communities have been suffering.

The solar project is predicted to create “approximately 400 construction jobs and four operations jobs,” according to the Department of Energy, and will generate $18.5 million in property taxes over 40 years (about $462,000 per year). Perhaps even more important, the project will also include the creation of a Coal Transition Workforce Center, which could help not just residents of Nicholas County, but residents across the state who have been left behind by mine closures.

We can try to cling to coal, but it is a finite resource that will run out eventually, and we will have no choice but to find alternatives when it does. So it is better to prepare for that now than it is to cling so hard to the past that we end up without a future.