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Southwest Virginia may be site for future solar projects

Southwest Virginia may be site for future solar projects

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Southwest Virginia will “absolutely” be considered for future solar energy production facilities, a Dominion Energy official said Monday, because of state requirements for more renewable energy production.

A planned solar project announced Monday for former mining sites is only the beginning of energy producers expanding.

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act calls for us to do 16,000-plus megawatts of solar — that’s 160,000 acres or more than three times the footprint of the District of Columbia,” William Murray, Dominion’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications, said during a meeting with the Bristol Herald Courier’s editorial board. “We could not nor would we want to do that on undeveloped land. Solar is a great resource. It’s very flexible, it’s scalable, but it is land intensive.”

Solar requires about 10 acres of land per megawatt produced, which is enough to power 250 homes. A more traditional power plant can generate 1,500-1,600 megawatts from 100 acres, Murray said.

Asked if this region is in the running for those projects, Murray said, “Absolutely.”

On Monday, Dominion officials jointly announced with The Nature Conservancy plans to repurpose 1,200 acres of former surface mining sites in Wise and Dickenson counties to generate 50 megawatts of solar energy. Construction is expected to begin in 2024 or 2025. At peak output, the project would power 12,500 homes.

The Nature Conservancy oversees several thousand acres of former surface coal mines in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky.

“This is something we hope to use as a model for a lot more of these types of projects,” Murray said.

“A big part of the cost for solar is connecting into the grid, and the nature of an abandoned mine site has some kind of grid resource there for distribution and transmission,” Murray said. “That is a lot better than trying to take a site in a remote area with no hookup to the grid. The nature of mining in this region is the sites tend to be relatively flat, fairly land intensive, and those are things we look at.”

Former mining areas have other assets, he said.

“The nature of solar panels you need relatively flat, relatively firm ground, but if you were doing other sorts of uses, some the legacy environmental issues on the site would be a bigger deal for some uses than they are for solar. Part of running a solar project is having good erosion and sediment control. We think it is a good brownfield use … and there’s a lot of land,” he said.

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, praised Monday’s announcement.

“The innovative partnership between The Nature Conservancy and Dominion Energy will help open new doors to our workforce and provide new opportunities for economic development throughout our region,” Pillion said in a written statement.

Murray complimented the region’s outlook and assets.

“We’ve been working down in this region more than 15 years, and while it’s not in our distribution territory, there is a fantastic business climate, and [it’s] a great part of the state to work in,” Murray said. “We’ve had great experience working here in Southwest Virginia.”

Murray said the company recognizes that the region has a ready workforce.

“It’s a very favorable business climate down here, and with the three community colleges in the region and UVa-Wise, we’ve had very good dealings with the higher ed institutions, so there is a good workforce infrastructure in Southwest Virginia,” Murray said.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC | Facebook.com/david.mcgee.127

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