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Previously Mined Lands in Pa. Have Potential for Solar Development

As the development of large solar facilities continues to ramp up, Pennsylvania is looking for ways to meet its renewable energy goals while preserving its farmland and forests.

A new report from the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation and LaBella Associates, written for the state Department of Environmental Protection, takes an in-depth look at the challenges and benefits of using active, abandoned, or reclaimed coal mining sites (previously mined lands) for solar development. These properties represent an opportunity to reuse sites with limited options for renewable energy purposes, while at the same time preserving greenfields, where most projects are now built.

There are almost 169,000 acres of abandoned mine lands in the state where potential solar facilities could be located, the report determined, with 142,000 of those acres still not reclaimed from mining use while 27,000 acres have been remediated. The report notes that federal funding for abandoned mine reclamation can only be used to remediate health and safety issues, and not to make sites ready for solar, but suggested that early notification of potential solar development could allow for a combination of funding sources.

Pennsylvania’s Solar Future Plan sets a goal is to increase in-state solar generation to 10 percent of its electric consumption by 2030.

The report found that while there are no technical or regulatory issues preventing the use of previously mined lands for solar, their development may be more difficult compared to greenfield sites due to uncertainties over site conditions, additional time for reclamation, and costly geological studies. Additional government investment could be made available to encourage development of these properties for solar use, the report suggests.

 Another recommendation is to establish a goal of 9,000 acres (about 1,500 megawatts) of solar on previously mined sites by 2032, which would represent just 5% of the 169,000 acres of potentially suitable property. The report notes that more study is needed to better determine the site characteristics to better identify favorable sites. The initial goal would supply about 14% of the 11,000 MW needed to reach Pennsylvania’s overall 10% solar goal.

The report also determined there is a need for additional pathways for medium-sized solar installations to be economically viable to make previously mined sites attractive, as they are generally smaller parcels with multiple owners. Utility-scale projects that sell electricity directly to the electric grid generally require 100 to 120 acres of property. Medium-sized solar facilities, like those used for community solar projects, generate less electricity and generally take just 15 to 30 acres.

Community solar, where electricity produced off-site is sold to customers within a certain community or geographic area, is a growing trend. Community solar is currently not permitted in Pennsylvania, but a bill to add it recently passed in the state House and is now before Senate.

As the transition to renewable energy continues to accelerate, more solar projects are on the horizon and the potential of using previously mined lands could become a priority.

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