Turning Brownfields into Greenfields: From Coal to Clean Energy – by Lee Buchsbaum (PowerMag.com – November 1, 2015)


As the coal industry declines in many places around the world, can the mines it leaves behind be repurposed for cleaner energy projects that benefit multiple stakeholders, including local economies? Several existing and planned projects demonstrate that there may be multiple paths toward that transition.

No question, the coal industry in Appalachia, the rest of the U.S., and much of the developed world is going through massive structural changes. As mines close and regulators and citizens take stock of their legacy, people are wondering what’s next for the coalfields.

Beyond attempting to restore scarred lands to their “approximate original contours,” as required by U.S. federal law, there may be another approach, one that could provide lasting value to mining companies, landowners, residents, and other stakeholders.

Thousands of acres of once-abandoned mines are now wildlife preserves or slowly reviving parklands, but can mined land be put to economic use? With the help of a relatively new and little-known Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiative, “RE-Powering America’s Land,” transitional assistance for taking brownfields to greenfields is now available.

Borrowing from lessons learned at sites across the U.S. and Europe, the EPA is trying to jumpstart new clean energy projects at abandoned and closing mines throughout economically distressed coal country.

Meanwhile, as the timeline for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) moves forward, the distress in Appalachia might be leading to new experiments in carbon credit bundling, which could provide a model for coal burners on how to generate electricity while staying beneath limits set by the CPP.

Front and center is a proposal by the nonprofit Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund Inc. to purchase thousands of acres of former mined lands from the now-bankrupt Patriot Coal, along with several active mines, and plant millions of trees as carbon offsets to be sold along with future coal production.

The scheme, approved by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on October 6, would also jump-start remediation and reclamation on dozens of old mine sites throughout the East while keeping hundreds of coal miners employed. The agreement remains subject to bankruptcy court approval, expected by the end of October.

The Greening of Lignite in Germany

Worldwide, there already are numerous examples of solar and wind power installations on former mine lands, especially in Germany, which earlier this century began decarbonizing its economy.

One of the first brownfield to greenfield redevelopments, the Leipziger Solar Power Plant, was installed upon 49 acres of a former lignite mine site in Espenhain, Germany. Initially, the 5-MW photovoltaic power plant was made up of 33,500 solar modules feeding directly into the German electricity grid. The project, which has operated since 2004, was initiated and developed by the energy company GEOSOL for $26.5 million. The Espenhain site, located near Leipzig, was a former settling area for lignite or “brown coal” ash and dust.

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