Turning Brownfields into Greenfields: From Coal to Clean Energy

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. Based on this prior use and the amount of contamination at the settling area, the site did not offer many traditional reuse or redevelopment options. However, a solar energy plant was an option, but only after on-site contamination was remediated. At the Espenhain site, the lignite waste had to first be buried under a foot of soil before custom-built supports for the solar panels could be installed.

A similar project nearby is the 3.4-MW Borna Solar Plant, installed at a cost of $28 million on the site of a factory that had produced lignite briquettes (Figure 1).


1. From coal to sol. Borna Solar PV Park generates 3.5 million kWh annually on a site in Germany previously used to manufacture lignite briquettes. Source: GEOSOL/EPA

Building upon the success of these and similar conversions, in 2012 a consortium of Chinese and German firms converted part of another former lignite strip mine into a solar power plant. Working with the German firm Energiebauern, the Chinese company JinkoSolar supplied 5.7 MW of solar modules to the new 11.6-MW solar power station in Starkenberg, Thuringia. Constructed by Energiebauern, the solar power station is located on an abandoned strip mine in the south of Starkenberg and is the largest project of its kind in that German state.

Huge Potential for RE-Powering America

Throughout the U.S., according to the Government Accountability Office, there are between 80,000 and 250,000 similar abandoned mine lands (AMLs) pock-marking the landscape. AMLs include abandoned mines and the areas adjacent to or affected by the mines. Because of safety or environmental concerns, the majority of these sites have never been considered for any type of reuse and have remained idle.

AML sites are often in rural or remote areas that may not be well-suited for more traditional commercial or industrial reuse opportunities. Quite a few are “pre-law” sites not subject to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 and/or are not former coal mines. Because of this, the land often sits fallow or has become de facto nature or hunting preserves. And few companies or entities would ever seriously consider taking on the remediation costs associated with redevelopment. Indeed, the land essentially becomes a ward of the state, often leaching toxins into the environment with little oversight. Struggling agencies barely have the resources to adequately clean up these areas. And now, following the disaster at the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado earlier this year, you can bet any group currently involved in remediation work is reevaluating its plans.

But if stakeholders are able to think outside the box and look forward, there are some real benefits inherent in transforming these blighted areas. Many of these sites can take advantage of local renewable resource attributes to produce power while returning the land to productive use. As part of its RE-Powering America initiative, the EPA has identified renewable energy development at mining sites as a priority for the agency’s reuse-related activities at contaminated sites. The initiative identifies brownfields, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund, and mining sites for their wind, solar, and biomass development potential and provides other useful resources for communities, developers, industry, state and local governments, or anyone interested in reusing these sites for renewable energy development. The EPA supports the reuse of former mine lands through the Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI).

Working in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the RE-Powering Initiative has propelled renewable energy development on contaminated lands from merely an intriguing notion to an ever-increasing portfolio of viable projects. According to the EPA, since the initiative’s inception in 2008, more than 150 renewable energy installations on 144 contaminated lands, landfills, and mine sites have been established throughout 35 states and territories, representing a combined 1,046 MW of capacity—not a huge amount of power, but not bad for a relatively obscure project within a very thinly stretched agency.

Of course, the EPA doesn’t site renewable energy projects but directly and indirectly supports cleanup of contaminated properties where such sites could be developed. Remediating contaminated sites and determining their eventual reuses results from the efforts of a diverse set of stakeholders including communities, developers, states, tribes, local government, and the financial community.

Siting Advantages

As noted above, AMLs often are excellent locations for solar energy and wind production facilities. Many abandoned mining sites are located in the western and southwestern U.S., in areas that have abundant available sunlight (300+ days a year). However, states like Pennsylvania are also demonstrating the viability of renewables facilities on the East Coast.

Additionally, utility-scale solar energy projects require access to large, open sites, and the size of many AMLs means that large solar arrays can be accommodated at a single property.

Precisely because of their history as industrial sites, many AMLs are located near existing infrastructure, including roads and power transmission lines, which can reduce project costs. However, many are also situated in remote areas with limited electricity infrastructure; those sites are well suited for using solar energy for onsite cleanup and reclamation activities, such as to power a groundwater pump and treatment system.

U.S. Examples of Repurposed Sites

To be fair, several power producers moved ahead long before the EPA did to engage in green power redevelopment. One of the first projects was a large windfarm installed by PacifiCorp in 2008. Today, 66 wind turbines near the hamlet of Glenrock, Wyo., with a nameplate capacity of 99 MW, generate renewable power on land that Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway–owned PacifiCorp retired and reclaimed from surface coal mining operations (Figure 2). Perhaps the first wind facility in the West to recycle fossil fuel–producing land for green energy generation, the 300 acres upon which the Glenrock turbines stand were part of the 14,000-acre Dave Johnston Mine (Figure 3) that produced 104 million tons of subbituminous coal between 1958 and 2000. The surface mine operation fueled PacifiCorp’s neighboring Dave Johnston Plant—still one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West.


2. Where the wind blows and the antelope roam. A 66-turbine wind farm rated at 99 MW near Glenrock, Wyo., now generates renewable energy where the Dave Johnston Coal Mine once sat (see next figure). Courtesy: PacifiCorp


3. Dave Johnston Coal Mine, 1993. Source: Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, U.S. Department of the Interior

Back East, from 2000 through 2004 the Tennessee Valley Authority installed 18 wind turbines on a former strip mine in Tennessee. The Buffalo Mountain project, visible for miles, supplies clean energy to roughly 3,400 homes annually.

Around the same time as Buffalo Mountain went into service, to the north, the Casselman Wind Power Project in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, started generating upon another closed surface mine (Figure 4). Eight of Casselman’s 23 wind turbines sit atop a reclaimed strip mine. Developed and owned by Iberdrola Renewables, collectively the wind power project can generate up to 34.5 MW. In addition, the former mining site hosts the wind farm’s operation center, collector transformer, and interconnection facility. While the project spans approximately 2,000 acres, the actual footprint is less than 2% of the total acreage.


4. Still providing energy. Roughly a third of the Casselman Wind Power Project turbines in Somerset County, Penn., sit atop a former surface coal mine. Courtesy: Iberdrola Renewables

On the solar side, with help from the EPA’s initiative, a 43-acre solar farm is now generating power at a former Superfund site in Indiana, making it the nation’s largest solar farm yet built on a Superfund site. Made up of 36,000 solar panels, the Maywood Solar Farm started producing power last year. The EPA touts it as one of 85 renewable energy projects that the agency has helped install on Superfund sites, landfills, and old mining sites nationwide. In this case, the solar farm is on the site of a former coal tar refinery plant, which dealt with hazardous chemicals until its closing in 1972. In the 1980s officials found that the groundwater underneath the site was contaminated with benzene and ammonia; afterwards, the area was designated a Superfund site. “This innovative solar project demonstrates that Superfund sites can be redeveloped,” EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman said in a statement. “The Maywood Solar Farm project has transformed a site with a long history of contamination into a source of renewable energy.” At the end of the day, it’s a great step forward upon an otherwise nearly dead landscape.

Tree-Hugger Plan Promises to Protect Coal Mining, Miners, and Environment

Long the sickest man in the room, Patriot Coal has gone through bankruptcy proceedings twice in the past two years. Perhaps designed to fail from the outset (see “The Shifting Fates of Coal Markets, Coal Mining, and Coal Power” in the October issue), the metallurgical coal boom that started before the 2008 recession boosted the company’s fortunes as investors financed expansions to tap met coal reserves. With the collapse of all coal prices, Patriot has been on the proverbial down-bound train ever since.

In June, Patriot agreed to sell the majority of its remaining mines to Blackhawk Mining. However, a smaller chunk of Patriot’s coal-producing assets—including several operating mines, millions of dollars of environmental liabilities, and dozens of old mine permits—may be transferred to a newly created subsidiary of the nonprofit Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund (VCLF) as part of a scheme to plant hundreds of thousands of trees and bundle carbon credits into the sales of several million tons of new coal production.

As noted earlier, the plan has received environmental department approval but awaits bankruptcy court approval. As envisioned by CEO Tom Clarke and the rest of VCLF’s management team, planting trees and reaping the carbon credits may be one path forward for all coal companies—many of which are also huge landholders with millions of trees on their property.

Through its affiliate, ERP Compliant Fuels LLC (ERP), VCLF, its management, and other shareholders have sought and been granted provisional regulatory approval to receive 153 mining permits from Patriot while purchasing other related equipment, processing facilities, and collateral. VCLF’s goal is to help restore Appalachian communities through active mining, land reclamation, and water quality improvement. ERP will also assume all of Patriot’s Workers Compensation and state black lung obligations, estimated to be as much as $109 million. ERP proposes to grant significant equity ownership of the new company to the United Mine Workers of America to support their pension and retiree health benefits.

With the acquired Patriot assets, ERP would operate the established Federal Mining Complex in northern West Virginia, which has the capacity to produce over 4 million tons of thermal coal annually. It will also take over the Corridor G facility in southern West Virginia. VCLF says it will reclaim land and improve water quality in West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

Can Trees Save Coal?

VCLF is committed to the so-called “forestry reclamation approach,” creating economic opportunities for Appalachian communities. Here’s how it works. VCLF supporter GreenTrees from The Plains, Virginia, has planted more than 36 million trees on over 100,000 acres of land in the Mississippi Alluvial Delta, sequestering over 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and, thus, creating saleable carbon credits. GreenTrees accounts for over 90% of the reforestation carbon credits registered to date by the American Carbon Registry. ERP intends to sell “compliant fuels,” which bundle carbon credits with coal sales to produce a “compliance instrument,” effectively reducing CO2 emissions. The compliant fuels market is expected to increase under the recent EPA emission standards required by the CPP.

As part of the acquisition, ERP will maintain 683 jobs in West Virginia through the operation of the Federal mine and its forestry reclamation activities. VCLF already controls over 30,000 acres of conservation land, including the Natural Bridge of Virginia, and provides “environmental management services” at 459 coal mining and water quality sites in five states.

VCLF/ERP would also potentially assume liability of more than $400 million in connection with Patriot’s workers’ compensation, state black lung, and environmental obligations. In addition, VCLF/ERP would assume or replace surety bonds supporting reclamation and related liabilities associated with the purchased assets. “In VCLF, we have found an experienced partner who will responsibly manage our remaining assets consistent with the highest environmental standards and we believe this proposed transaction is in the best interest of Patriot and its stakeholders,” Patriot Coal President and CEO Bob Bennett said.

VCLF’s Clarke—who billed the court’s initial agreement as a landmark achievement for the fund, Appalachia, and the entire coal industry—stated that VCLF expected to maintain employment in West Virginia at current levels and expand as it invests up to $176 million in land reclamation, reforestation, and water-quality improvements. “Continued mining at [the Federal Mining Complex] will allow us to launch our ‘compliant fuel’ program, which bundles reforestation carbon credits with coal sales, effectively reducing CO2 emissions, as required under the new emission standards,” Clarke outlined.

According to a rather skeptical report published by InsideClimate News, to offset the carbon emissions from burning coal, Clarke plans to plant trees both on the mine property and elsewhere in Appalachia. (Note that Clarke’s plan isn’t the only effort to plant trees on former mining sites; see Figure 5.) He will then bundle the carbon credits from planting trees with the coal and sell it to utilities for a profit. “We inset the carbon with the coal and so when the train arrives at the power station, it also has cancelled [carbon credit] certificates,” said Clarke. “We’re creating a new product.” The carbon credits are supposed to account for about 30% of the emissions from burning the coal.


5. A new beginning. Seedlings such as this one on a former coal mining site near Hazard, Ky., are among 100,000 bee-friendly native Appalachian trees planted on 500 acres since 2008 in coordination with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative to produce pollen and nectar favorable for establishing a honeybee industry in Eastern Kentucky. Courtesy: The Lane Report

Seemingly controversial and outlandish, Clarke’s plan isn’t altogether new. Renewable energy credits are sometimes sold bundled with the underlying energy source. But what’s radically unique is that it comes from someone who claims to be a climate activist who also wants to keep coal mines open.

Clarke contends that environmental groups have to be directly involved in the coal market. By selling coal and doing it in a way that reduces carbon emissions, it will push the market to use cleaner fuel sources, he said. “We’ve got to do everything,” Clarke insisted. “We’ve got to push all of the solutions simultaneously… We have to take bold risks.” The plan will also keep jobs in the region and help the Appalachian economy slowly transition away from coal dependency while helping push the area toward more of a restoration economy.

Innovation or Smoke and Mirrors?

Environmentalists are confused by Clarke and his intentions. Earlier this year, he became involved with another troubled mining giant, Southern Coal. Led by the billionaire Jim Justice, who is running for West Virginia’s governorship, Southern is facing millions of dollars in fines for health, safety, and environmental violations, as well as lawsuits by former employees alleging they had been unfairly fired. Clarke initially mounted a very public campaign against the company but later decided to join Justice’s company as an unpaid consultant to create a compliance strategy. The success of this new partnership is still questionable, as are Clarke’s loyalties, apparently.

Another significant question is whether utilities can actually use Clarke’s coal to fulfill their requirements under the CPP. If the EPA disallows a compliance strategy based on attaching carbon credits to fossil fuels, utilities would lose any incentive to purchase coal from Clarke.

“Approval of this ‘compliant fuel’ strategy is likely to be a difficult challenge,” said Ken Colburn, head of U.S. operations at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that provides technical assistance on energy and environment issues. The regulations require utilities to reduce emissions from power plants. Offsetting emissions elsewhere by planting trees won’t meet the requirements of the rule, Colburn said. “The trees would be reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but not the amount emitted from the power sector,” he explained. That said, because individual states can create their own CPP compliance plans, it’s possible West Virginia and other coal-dependent states can create a carve-out exemption favorable to these types of credits.

In defense of this plan, Clarke said his group is already in talks with a Virginia-based power station that emits about 6 million tons of CO2 a year. If a deal is finalized, Clarke’s group will offset about 2 million tons of CO2 by planting hundreds of millions of trees.

“Whether environmental groups realize it or not, this is a major way to help solve this issue,” said Chandler Van Voorhis, managing partner of GreenTrees. “It’s a powerful way to deal with carbon emissions.” But it will likely meet resistance from environmental groups that see defeating coal as a top priority. “The Sierra Club doesn’t like it because they want power companies to invest in solar and wind,” Clarke said. “We believe coal is still going to play a role.”

Beyond whatever happens with Patriot, Clarke and the VCLF have substantial land holdings and partners with holdings of their own. Between them, they control a slew of wild and planted forests whose CO2 sequestering ability can already be monetized. For an estimated 10% increase in cost, VCLF’s new coal production would come bundled with credits, equal to about 30% of the combustion emissions, already paid for. “The tree is the answer, it really is the answer,” Clarke said. ■

Lee Buchsbaum (, a former editor and contributor to Coal Age, Mining, and EnergyBiz, has covered coal and other industrial subjects for nearly 20 years and is a seasoned industrial photographer. 

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