By Rachel Pemberton, Law & Policy Clerk
|The TransAlta Centralia coal mine in Washington State.|
Image: Erichwtl at English Wikipedia.
But what happens to coal facilities once they’ve gone offline? Abandoned coal mines frequently pollute groundwater and emit toxic waste, harming public health and the environment. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences defines abandoned mines, including abandoned coal mines, as “mines that have been deserted and are no longer being maintained, and in which further mining is not intended.” (Orphaned mines, on the other hand, are “abandoned mines for which no owner or responsible party can be found.”) As of 2015, there were over 48,000 abandoned coal mines in the United States. Even accounting for the nearly 800,000 acres of coal-damaged lands and waters that have been remediated or reclaimed since the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), there remains an estimated 6.2 million acres in need of remediation.
Retired Coal Plants and Abandoned Coal Mines Offer New Opportunities for Solar Energy
Some former coal facilities are using the downfall of coal as an opportunity to transition towards solar energy. One facility, known as the Mount Tom Energy Storage System, lies on the outskirts of Holyoke, Massachusetts. The site that is now home to this facility was previously occupied by the Mount Tom Station coal-fired power plant, which closed down in 2014 following its fifth year without profits. In a dramatic transformation of the site, the former coal facility has been replaced with a solar farm composed of 17,000 solar panels as well as a three-megawatt (MW) battery storage system. Prior to its transition, the coal plant had long been a source of complaints from local residents who attributed numerous health problems to the plant’s emissions. Now, the solar farm that occupies the site, which came online in 2018, is helping Holyoke transition to a carbon-neutral energy future.
On the other side of the country, the Navajo Nation—whose reservation spans over 27,000 square miles across parts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico—has also used the retirement of a local coal mine and power plant as an opportunity to continue their transition towards renewable energy. The former Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta coal mine were permanently closed in early 2019, after a bill to purchase those facilities to keep them operational failed to pass a vote by the Navajo Nation Council. Instead, one councilmember proposed that the tribe focus on harnessing the abundant solar energy available in the region.
Indeed, those efforts were already proving successful. Two years earlier, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority had begun work on phase one of the Kayenta Solar Project. Prior to the August 2018 groundbreaking of this 27.3 MW system, construction had already generated over $15 million in regional economic activity. After the Council’s vote in March of 2019, the Navajo Nation was able to utilize the former Navajo Generating Station site to continue the Kayenta Solar Project into its second phase. Phase two was successfully completed in September of 2019, adding another 27.8 MW to the now substantial 55 MW solar facility and producing enough energy to power an additional 36,000 homes.
Like defunct coal-fired power plants, abandoned coal mines offer opportunities for renewable energy development. In 2018, TransAlta unveiled plans to turn its abandoned Centralia Mine, located in Washington State, into a nearly 1,000 acre solar project. Upon ceasing active mining operations in 2006, TransAlta began to reclaim the former strip mine in 2007 with the goal of restoring forest and pasture land to the site. The Centralia Mine formerly supplied coal to TransAlta’s nearby power plant, which is Washington’s only coal-fired power plant and the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Without a supply of coal from the former Centralia Mine, however, TransAlta reached an agreement with the state in 2011 to shut down the plant over the following decade.
Today, the plant’s first coal-fired burner is scheduled to close by the end of the year, with the second scheduled to close in 2025. The proposed Tono Solar project at the former mine site would have a generating capacity of nearly 180 MW of electricity, becoming one of the largest solar projects in the state. According to TransAlta, a solar project that is built on a site formerly occupied by coal infrastructure comes with the benefit of existing transmission lines, which were placed on-site when TransAlta acquired the mine in 2000.
In March of 2018, when the Tono Solar project was first announced, it was expected to come online as soon as late 2020. The two-year turnaround of this proposed project is made possible in part by the timeline of the Centralia Mine site’s closure. When TransAlta announced their plans for the Tono Solar project in 2018, the former Centralia Mine had only been abandoned for 12 years. This is in stark contrast to the many mines across the country that have sat abandoned since the mid 1900s or earlier. Many of the challenges associated with remediating former coal mines are time sensitive; the longer these mines sit abandoned, the more damage they do to the surrounding environment.
Like abandoned coal mines, retired coal plants are not closely regulated. However, retired coal plants undergo a process of decommissioning, remediation, and redevelopment. Abandoned coal mines, on the other hand, continue to pollute groundwater and soil with acid mine drainage for centuries following their closure. Moreover, abandoned coal mines continue to emit methane, which makes the surrounding air unsafe to breathe for decades (and possibly centuries) after operations cease. This begs the question: given the potentially exorbitant costs associated with reclaiming long-abandoned coal mines, is it economically feasible to develop renewable energy projects at those sites?
Funding the Reclamation of Long-Abandoned Coal Mines
The Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Reclamation Program offers one potential funding opportunity for states and tribes to reclaim long-abandoned mine sites. The AML Reclamation Program was created upon the passage of the SMCRA in 1977 and is housed within the United States Department of the Interior (DOI). This program “uses fees paid by present-day coal mining companies to reclaim coal mines abandoned before 1977.” Funding is allocated according to a three-priority scale, which measures the level of danger posed by a given site. In 2017, the five states that received the most funding under this program were Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wyoming, which collectively received a total of over $121 million. In addition to the AML reclamation program, the DOI’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement currently administers an AML Economic Development Pilot Program to the states and tribes with the most remaining unfunded high-priority sites. Under this pilot program, additional funding is provided to Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as the Crow Tribe, Hopi Tribe, and Navajo Nation.
One solar power project developer in Virginia has proposed using AML pilot program funds to reclaim an abandoned coal mine in Wise County, which is located in the southwestern portion of the state. The mine, which has sat abandoned for over 60 years since it was last mined in 1957, would be reclaimed and repurposed into a 3.5 MW direct-current solar farm. In addition to providing clean energy, this project has the potential to spur the revitalization of a community that has faced economic struggles as the coal industry has declined. If successful, this would be the first project using AML pilot program funds to convert an abandoned coal mine into a solar farm.
How We Move Forward: Creating Incentives and Maintaining Funding Availability
The successful Mount Tom Energy and Kayenta Solar projects are evidence that creative innovation and a push towards renewable energy offer a promising solution to the economic hardships and environmental blight that accompany abandoned coal facilities. Similarly, the ongoing Tono Solar project is evidence that building renewable energy facilities around existing transmission infrastructure may offer opportunities for a quicker transition away from fossil fuels. Siting renewable energy resources based on the proximity of existing transmission infrastructure, as opposed to siting those resources according to the abundance of solar, wind, or hydroelectric energy available, may not allow for optimal efficiency; nonetheless, it is imperative that we work swiftly to address the threats posed by abandoned coal facilities and climate change.
The U.S.’s 48,000 abandoned coal mines should serve as an impetus for the creation of new incentives for investments in renewable energy technologies. Given the presence of existing transmission infrastructure at abandoned coal plants and other facilities, these sites hold potential for utilities to invest in renewable energy technologies while making use of the infrastructure that remains. By combining the vast availability of existing transmission infrastructure with the environmental and financial benefits of solar, we can speed along the processes of (1) remediating and reclaiming some of this country’s most blighted landscapes as well as (2) transitioning away from fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable energy.
Creating these incentives cannot be achieved, however, unless the federal government makes public and environmental health strong priorities. Right now, the reauthorization to collect fees from current coal mining companies to fund projects under the AML Reclamation Program is set to expire in 2021. Absent intervention at the federal level, this expiration will leave millions of acres of coal-damaged lands in need of remediation and without the necessary funding—estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars—to do so. This country is long overdue for creative solutions that address multiple facets of our problematic dependence on fossil fuels. We cannot afford to lose a valuable mechanism in that fight.
The posts published on Charged Debate reflect the writers’ opinions in their individual capacities, and do not necessarily reflect the perspective of the Green Energy Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School, Lewis & Clark Law School, Lewis & Clark College, or the writers’ past, present or future employers or other associations. Any legal information presented on Charged Debate is meant purely for general educational purposes and is not intended to provide legal advice and should not be relied upon in any legal matter.