West Virginia has been hard hit by declines in the coal industry, which has long been a top employer in the state. At the same time, coal is the worst polluter when it comes to energy sources, and our reliance on it has caused the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to increase to dangerous levels in the past few decades.
One way West Virginia could recover from this economic hardship and reduce emissions would be to encourage growth in its solar industry. A new plan outlines how that could happen, and it claims hundreds of thousands of acres of former coal mine lands could pretty easily be turned into solar fields.
The new plan, which was put together by The Nature Conservancy earlier this month, cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the number of jobs in solar is growing by 63 percent every year. That means it's currently fastest growing industry, and it's projected to stay that way looking forward.
Around a quarter of a million people are employed by the solar industry at this time. The plan explains that West Virginia could encourage investment in its existing solar industry to increase rooftop installations and convert former mine lands into solar fields. Eriks Brolis, economic development lead for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said in a statement that the state just needs the right policies in place.
“By encouraging the development of large-scale solar on former surface coal mines, West Virginia has an historic opportunity to build upon its legacy as a domestic energy provider," Brolis said. "With a fair and predictable state policy framework, a new energy economy could emerge: creating jobs for miners to apply transferable skills, generating valuable lease revenues for landowners and replenishing the tax base for local communities—all while helping to attract new employers and industries to the state.”
An analysis done by The Nature Conservancy found there are 400,000 acres of former mine lands that could be converted into land for solar fields. It says this land is "relatively flat, lacks forest cover and potentially has preexisting access roads and transmission lines." The organization claims converting this amount of land would mean West Virginia would double the amount of land being used for solar in the United States.
One way this could be accomplished is by West Virginia establishing Renewable Energy Standards, which require utilities to get a certain amount of their energy from renewable sources. This has been already implemented successfully in 29 states. States can also create tax incentives to attract solar energy companies to the state.
The report explains that industrial energy costs have risen in West Virginia by seven percent each year for the past two years while the state's power grid has largely been reliant on coal energy. With solar prices decreasing every year and with the price of solar energy now often being less than the price of getting energy from fossil fuel sources like coal, West Virginia growing its solar energy industry could end up saving the state money.
There are clearly economic benefits to West Virginia expanding its solar footprint, and there are obviously many environmental benefits as well. Beyond the greenhouse gas emissions burning coal creates, West Virginians have had to deal with heavily polluted water and air due to the state's coal industry. All in all, it seems growing West Virginia's solar industry would create jobs and help West Virginians stay healthy.