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Coal Belt to Sun Belt?

Texas has a golden opportunity for clean energy: reusing coal-mining land for utility-scale solar.

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A working Luminant coal mine in Tatum, on July 29, 2013. This mine is not one of the recent closures.
LM Otero/AP

Editor’s note: this is a contributed op-ed. 

The state’s biggest electricity generator, Luminant, recently announced the closing of three coal-fired power plants in Texas, but out of the coal ashes could rise a phoenix.

The blighted land around these power plants presents a unique opportunity for clean energy investment, specifically utility-scale solar.

For forty years, these “mine mouth” power plants, those that generate power from coal mined on site, have used the vast and shallow belts of lignite coal that underlay sections of eastern Texas to provide reliable and cheap, but dirty, electricity. In their wake, they leave behind thousands of acres of contaminated land surrounding the plants, some of which has already been reclaimed.

And this land is particularly well suited for large solar farms.

Consider the following:

There is steady demand. Market forces including low wholesale electricity prices, cheap natural gas and increased renewable generation have made operating these three plants uneconomical. Even with population increases, overall electricity demand growth has slowed due to increased energy efficiency. That said, there is a broader trend toward electrification, notably through accelerated adoption of electric vehicles. In order to match this new demand with clean energy, we’ll need the type of creative investment in renewables that utility-scale solar offers.

The land is flat and clear. For the most part, the state-monitored, sludge-filled land on which the coal plants depended meets the ideal criteria for solar. The land has been flattened and re-vegetated with grass, but it has little potential for any future use without costly cleanup efforts. It is unencumbered by trees or other brush that often would need to be cleared to install a solar farm. In fact, solar is already being fitted on environmentally blighted places, from legacy mines to landfills, and technologies exist to do so with minimal impact to installers and maintenance workers.

And finally, the location is right. It’s true that the state’s highest solar potential is located in the West. However, the large cities of Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio are located relatively close to the soon-to-be-shuttered facilities. This is important because the poles and wires to connect power plants to the population centers are extremely expensive, and more energy is lost the farther you transmit it. Consequently, transmitting energy over shorter distances saves money, which lowers energy bills for customers.

Building and permitting new transmission lines also frequently includes use of eminent domain to take private land, which, understandably, is often met with opposition. Conveniently, Luminant’s three plants reside in the heart of the state’s transmission grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and the necessary substations for connection already exist on site. Building solar generation on these reclaimed sites not only avoids the cost of new transmission but also takes maximum advantage of public investment in grid infrastructure.

Reusing land for solar isn’t a new idea, but being able to reuse land for solar so close to costly transmission infrastructure is. Trading cheap and reliable, but dirty, coal for free sunshine isn’t a one-to-one swap. A solar farm doesn’t employ anything close to the 800 miners who will be laid off from these closures. However, this investment would be replacing power plants that run seasonally anyway and whose electricity output won’t be missed.

In the end, using this land for a solar farm optimizes the shuttered uneconomic coal plants, a trend that will only continue. Luminant, which has already acquired a solar farm in West Texas, could use this opportunity to work with developers to identify sites appropriate for solar as part of their current, and successful, reclamation efforts. State agencies, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), that permit and monitor these sites should help identify and remove any barriers to permitting solar on blighted land and assess options for industrial use. Leveraging our existing resources is a responsible step in the right direction as we undergo a truly giant transition toward 21st-century energy infrastructure.

Brooke Holleman is a graduate research assistant in the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

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  • Casey Williams

    How do you think Elon Musk’s solar roof tiles and individually-purchased renewable technology will influence the electric grid and power companies?

  • Casey Williams

    Also, be sure to read my op-ed on a similar topic: https://www.texasmonthly.com/energy/west-texas-future-texas-energy-resilience/

  • Lisa Davidson

    The land is not flat and clear when reclaimed. Actually it is rolling hills and planted in Pine trees. At least that is how it is here around Tatum.

  • Ches Blevins

    For a serious piece by a graduate research assistant, Brooke Holleman’s commentary posted by Texas Monthly on installing solar panels on reclaimed mining land is seriously lacking in certain research. And facts.
    Here’s the full story. Ms. Holleman’s premise to turn coal mining land over to solar farms is certainly worth considering. However, her statements regarding the condition of reclaimed land after surface mining concludes are just wrong.
    The mandate by law of Texas miners is to leave the land “as good as or better than” they found it. As Texans, miners deeply care about the land and environment. They work closely with regulators at all levels to meet the letter and the spirit of the law to achieve post-mine reclamation. So Ms. Holleman’s claim that land is left “contaminated” is not only uninformed but false.

    The truth is Texas mining companies use advanced technologies to minimize disturbances to land, vegetation, water, air and natural habitats in mining. In post-mining, their reclamation and restoration programs – many of which are award-winning – are subject to an open, comprehensive, and exhaustive permitting process over several years that often exceeds state and federal environmental regulations.

    The Texas Mining and Reclamation Association (TMRA) understands that Ms. Holleman’s commentary is a personal viewpoint and not that of the UT Energy Institute or the UT Bureau of Economic Geology – two organizations well aware of the industry’s nationally recognized and top-ranked state mining and reclamation program. However, we strongly urge these departments and Texas Monthly to remain wary of disseminating information by students or staff that’s inaccurate.

    To truly benefit the education of Ms. Holleman, TMRA would be pleased to assist her in arranging a site visit to a reclaimed mine site in Texas for her to personally witness the industry’s environmental stewardship, professionalism and care. Because in that kind of research, seeing is believing.

  • Theo A

    Excellent idea.
    To use actual data – Monticello Plant & Mine

    The disturbed land area ~ 18,000 acres for the mine + 2,000 Acres for power plant once it it is removed.
    Total area ~ 20,000 acres. Assuming 1/3 is water bodies, roads, etc. ~ 12,000 acres will be available.

    Modern Utility Solar approaches 3 acres per MW of capacity. So total about 4,000 MW of solar can be installed. South central Texas Generates about 1,800 MWhr of electricity per MW installed. Ergo annual production will be 4,000 MW x 1,800 = 7,200,000 MWhr annual. Which should more than replace the existing generation at the pitifully low 27% capacity factor ~ 4,000,000 MWhr annual.

    Assuming 10% cost savings due to existing transmission. The total cost would be 4,000 x $900,000 ~ $3.6 Billion.