Environment

In the first project of its kind, a Kentucky coal company is partnering with a global renewable energy giant to explore putting a major solar installation on a former mountaintop removal coal mine.

Coal company Berkeley Energy Group and EDF Renewable Energy have been working on the initial phase of the project for more than a year. Although it’s still in the early phases, the plan includes putting 50 to 100 megawatts of solar panels on a surface mine site outside of Pikeville.

This would be the biggest solar plant in the state — potentially 10 times larger than the solar array at Kentucky Utilities’ Brown Station in Central Kentucky.

“Appalachia has long been an energy producer that has fueled the whole country,” said former state auditor Adam Edelen, now of Edelen Strategic Ventures, who is also involved in the project. “There’s no reason that shouldn’t continue; we just need to make sure we have an all-of-the-above energy approach, and I think incorporating solar and training and some of the best and brightest and hardest-working people you’ll ever find into a next generation industry is really a profound opportunity.”

From Berkeley Energy’s perspective, solar is a natural addition to the company’s portfolio and a potential moneymaker. Project Development Manager Ryan Johns said using mined-out sites for solar is one way for the land to be productive post-mining, rather than sitting vacant. He said first and foremost, Berkeley considers itself a coal company, though the company also has oil and gas assets.

“For us, this is not a competition against coal in any way,” he said. “What we’re wanting is as much coal to be mined as possible. What we look at is as kind of an offset to coal. This area has been mined, there’s no more coal to be mined, so now you can still have energy being provided for this area. It’s still providing jobs, it’s still helping the economy, it’s still providing energy for our country.”

If the project is realized, it’ll be one of the more consequential energy projects in the U.S. today, said Kiran Bhatraju. He’s the CEO of renewable energy company Arcadia Power and a Pikeville native.

“I really don’t think you can overstate the importance of this project and what it means for the region and for renewable energy writ large, to say we can build competitive projects anywhere in the country,” he said.

Real Reclamation

On the way to the grassy mountaintop removal site about 12 miles northeast of Pikeville, there’s a billboard sitting about the town of Zebulon. “Our Past, Our Future: Coal,” it proclaims.

In reality, the future of Eastern Kentucky may be more complicated than that.

Kenny Stanley drives me in his Chevy truck up the mountain to take a look at the potential site of Kentucky’s largest solar array. This part of the mountain has been reclaimed, but there’s still coal being mined on an adjacent site. When the wind blows right, you can hear the distant sounds of machinery, but otherwise it’s quiet. Birds chirp. At one point, Stanley points to two turkeys pecking in the bushes.

This isn’t a typical solar site. For one thing, it’s not flat, though there are some large flat areas. It’s likely some of the land will be re-contoured if the project is built.

And then there’s the issue of soil stability. You can’t build a major solar array if there’s a chance the soil will start compacting at some point.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

The view of the potential solar site from the ground.

“We’re definitely going to be spending more time on the geotechnical investigation than we might on another site, just because it’s not what we would call ‘native soil,’” said Doug Copeland, Regional Development Manager for EDF. “So, this was a mountain, it was taken apart, and now it’s going to be graded back. So, once you get more than a couple inches below the soil, you’re not quite as certain what you might find as when you’re building a solar project on farmland or in the California desert or even on old timberland. It’s definitely going to require a little more work than you might otherwise.”

But there are two other things that the site has going for it: Roads crisscross the mountain — providing lots of easy ways in — and power lines stretch overhead to carry the solar energy to customers.

Berkeley and EDF don’t know who those customers are yet, though EDF has already filed an application with PJM Interconnection, the region’s energy market. The plan is for the solar energy to be sold directly to a large corporate customer.

“Obviously, there are a lot of big companies out who that would love the opportunity to use renewable energy produced in Appalachia,” Edelen said.

And that’s true. As more and more large companies have self-imposed renewable energy mandates, they want to locate in places where they’ll have access to renewables. Currently, Kentucky isn’t one of those places.

Another thing Kentucky doesn’t have: a renewable energy mandate. State Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville has introduced bills proposing something similar for years; the measures never pass.

This year, the bill was amended on the House floor with anti-renewable energy provisions.

And this, said coal executive Ryan Johns, puts this project at a disadvantage by making it a little riskier for a renewable energy company to invest here.

“It would be spectacular if Kentucky had some renewable mandate,” Johns said. “We think that would help drive other businesses to come in. but whether that happens or not, we are going to go ahead with the project.”

Coal Mining Culture

Pike County is still one of Kentucky’s largest coal producers; in 2015, it produced nearly 7 million tons of coal. That’s a 25 percent drop from the coal that came out of the county as recently as 2009.

But there are other institutions here, too: there’s a university and a major hospital. On Monday, downtown didn’t feel as desolate as many small Appalachian towns can. Parking was at a premium; people were setting up carnival rides on one end of downtown for “Hillbilly Days,” the annual festival that starts later this week.

At Small Town Tattoo — which doesn’t, according to a posted sign, do cheap tattoos — Clyde Harless said his business suffers along with the ups and downs of the local coal industry. But lately, things seem to have settled out.

Harless’ face is covered with tattoos, as are the visible parts of his body. He said people come into the shop wanting coal-related tattoos all the time.

“Like helmet, pickaxe, stuff like that,” he said.

That hasn’t changed as more miners are laid off. Most people, he said, are getting these tattoos for family or cultural reasons.

But in 2015, according to the latest county-level data available, there were only about 1,600 coal miners working in the county. That’s down from more than 4,400 in 2009.

Hope for the Future

If this project gets off the ground, that by itself will be significant; Edelen calls it a “moonshot.”

But if it’s a success, both Johns and Edelen say it could be transformative for Appalachia.

Back in 2009, nonprofit Appalachian Voices estimated nearly 1.2 million acres of land in the region had been cleared by mountaintop removal coal mining. What would it mean for the struggling communities if there are solar fields on some of those?

“It means real economic diversification,” Edelen said. “Coal will see some revitalization, but I don’t think anyone believes its shoulders will be so large again that it can support the entire region. So what we’re talking about doing is bringing in a new industry.”

One of Berkeley’s demands before choosing EDF as a partner was that the project would use current and displaced coal miners from the area. With a solar project, most of the jobs will be in construction, and Johns said many miners would be well-suited for the job.

The project’s organizers don’t have projections yet on number of construction or permanent jobs.

“Our guys are very skilled workers,” he said. “They worked with a lot of metal, a lot of welding, a lot of heavy machinery. So I would believe a lot of these men would be able to pick this up very quickly. It definitely would require some additional training, but I believe it would be a matter of weeks and not months.”

Ultimately, all the people involved in the project are eyeing it as an economic venture, and for it to get off the ground, the solar energy produced will have to be cost-competitive. But the partners say they think they can make it work. If everything falls into place, construction could begin as early as next year.

And maybe, the next generation will be lining up for tattoos of suns and solar panels from Clyde Harless at Small Town Tattoo.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.