The Nature Conservancy and Dominion Energy Virginia are developing one of the first utility-scale solar projects on former surface mines in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

Credit: Dominion Energy

The Highlands Solar project will repurpose roughly 1,200 acres of the former Red Onion surface mine and surrounding properties in Wise and Dickenson Counties. The project will generate approximately 50 MW of solar energy.

“This project is a huge win for Southwest Virginia’s economy,” said Ed Baine, president of Dominion Energy Virginia. “It’s also another major step toward building a 100% clean energy economy in Virginia. Repurposing former coal mines for solar is a smart way to enhance the region’s economy and bring renewables to Southwest Virginia.”

This project announcement comes two months after The Nature Conservancy announced a similar effort to construct solar on former mined lands with Charlottesville-based Sun Tribe, and Washington, D.C.-based Sol Systems. Taking all three companies’ efforts together, the utility-scale solar projects within the Cumberland Forest Project will cover nearly 1,700 acres and generate an estimated 120 MW of solar energy.

“Southwest Virginia and the wider Central Appalachian coalfields have an important role to play in the renewable energy economy,” said Brad Kreps, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program. “Some of the region’s former mined lands are well suited for solar development and by directing development towards these areas it will help us conserve the region’s intact forests for wood products, carbon storage, wildlife habitats, outdoor recreation and tourism. By collaborating with Dominion Energy and other companies on these initial projects, we hope to develop a model that can be replicated in other coal mining regions across the U.S.”

The Highlands Solar project will be developed within the Cumberland Forest Project and surrounding properties. Managed by The Nature Conservancy, the Cumberland Forest Project was announced in 2019 and encompasses nearly 253,000 acres of land in Southwest Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky.

The majority of the property is designated for the protection and restoration of native forests. However, there are several thousand acres of non-forested, former surface coal mines that can support solar energy projects and local economic development with minimal impacts to the environment.

Over the next two to three years, Dominion Energy will conduct additional field studies, further develop the project plans, and complete the local and state permitting processes. The company will jointly develop the project with ANTARES Group, which will serve as the owner’s engineer. The company plans to begin construction in 2024 or 2025, subject to review and approval by the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

“For generations, Southwest Virginia’s coalfields have powered America’s homes and our economy,” said Delegate Terry Kilgore. “As we transition to cleaner energy, Southwest Virginia is once again leading the way. I’m excited to see The Nature Conservancy, Dominion Energy, and other solar developers investing in our region and helping to pave the way for the next generation of economic progress in Southwest Virginia.”

News item from Dominion Energy

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