Renewable Energy on Former Mine Sites?

The U.S. EPA is encouraging the development of renewable energy projects on contaminated lands, Superfund sites, so-called Brownfields (which are abandoned or underused industrial sites, often containing some contamination) and former mine sites. Under the RE-Powering America’s Land banner, the EPA “identifies the renewable energy potential of these sites and provides other useful resources for communities, developers, industry, state and local governments or anyone interested in reusing these sites for renewable energy development.”

This effort has potential ramifications for many mine sites or former industrial sites in Central Appalachia. Bill Scanlon describes the partnership between EPA and the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center to identify sites that are on the EPA’s list of Superfund and Brownfield sites as well as Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) sites that have been contaminated by prior land users.

According to Scanlon, “There are more than 4,000 brownfields in the United States, totaling 37,000 acres— the equivalent of 28,500 football fields. Add in RCRA and Superfund sites and abandoned mine lands and there are more than 11,000 sites, totaling over 14 million acres. That's enough room to power a big chunk of America with wind turbines and solar energy.”

Because not every site is suitable for renewable energy siting—based on shade cover, wind speeds, solar access and so forth – the National Renewable Energy Lab has come up with criteria for designating high priority sites, based on technical and economic feasibility, access to transmission lines, access to existing road infrastructure and other similar parameters. Additionally, the role of community engagement and support for the constructive re-use of a site can help attract NREL’s attention to a specific location.

Scanlon narrates the efforts of one coalfield community in Pennsylvania to bring hydropower to what has become the notorious Jeddo Tunnel. Scanlon describes the tunnel’s history saying: “The Jeddo Tunnel was dug in the late 1800s to try to move water out of coal formations. The attempt backfired, sweeping dangerous heavy metals down with the acidic water. Today, the Jeddo Tunnel drains 33 square miles of coal basins — bringing 60 million gallons a day of contaminated water to the Little Nescopeck Creek watershed.”

Says Gail Mosey, senior energy analyst at NREL’s SEAC, of community members’ efforts: “"We have citizens who are single-handedly making it happen. They're trying to make good out of bad."

Based on the success of Pennsylvania coalfield communities’ ability to attract the attention of NREL and EPA specialists, it seems entirely possible that with the right amount of sustained community support contaminated sites and former mine sites in Appalachia could be ripe for the development of federally supported renewable energy projects—truly RE-Powering America’s Land.

For Scanlon’s full story, click here.

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.