WISE COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – Collaborating groups in Southwest Virginia plan to repurpose land previously used for coal mining and convert it into sites for solar development.

Five different sites in Wise County are designated to become utility-scale solar farms over the next few years.

The project was initiated by the Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization that has had a conservation program in Southwest Virginia since the early 1990s. The Nature Conservancy manages the Cumberland Forest Project, which spans parts of Southwest Virginia, Eastern Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky.

Clinch Valley Program Director Brad Kreps said the Cumberland Forest area contains several thousand acres of flat and non-forested land.

A solar development site in Coeburn

Standing in a grassy field in Coeburn, Kreps explained these former coal mine sites offer space for large solar projects. Additionally, the cleared land means existing forests and wildlife do not have to be disturbed.

“Over time, this will convert from a grassland to a site that has solar panels on it,” said Kreps.

Charlottesville-based renewable energy company Sun Tribe was recently announced as one of the Nature Conservancy’s new project partners.

“Going forward, we essentially set up a process where we as the landowner are leasing these sites to Sun Tribe so that they can then pursue development,” said Kreps.

Sun Tribe CEO Danny Van Clief said they’ll work with local utilities to determine how much additional electricity can be input to the grid.

“That process does take about two years in total. And so the typical life cycle of a project like this is two to three years before construction starts,” said Van Clief. “Once construction is underway, it takes six to 12 months, and then the solar farm is operational for at least 35 years thereafter.”

Sun Tribe CEO Danny Van Clief said the land will contain a field of blue solar panels mounted off the ground, ‘rolling and undulating naturally with the existing topography’

Sun Tribe will lead the permitting, approval, and development process. The Nature Conservancy’s other partner is Washington D.C.-based company Sol Systems, which will finance, construct, own, and operate the projects.

The target is a 2023 or 2024 operation date for the solar farms. Van Clief said current estimates indicate the first five Wise County sites will create enough energy for between 5,000-10,000 homes each year. However, consumers are not limited to homeowners.

“It can sell power to anybody who buys power in this regional area. That could be the local utility, or it could be a large corporate customer that wishes to buy energy from a clean source,” Van Clief said.

The solar initiative comes as Virginia moves aggressively in renewable energy development. In 2020, the passage of the Clean Economy Act mandated companies and utilities in the state pursue cleaner energy. Under the law, electric utilities must produce their electricity from 100 percent carbon-free sources by 2050.

(IMAGE: Sun Tribe)

Van Clief said developing multiple utility-scale solar farms means bringing a tremendous amount of technology into the area. At the peak of construction, he said to expect 150-250 workers on-site.

“Solar is an economic engine. Developing a solar farm does create direct and indirect economic impact in the communities where that is located,” said Van Clief.

Solar development (IMAGE: Sun Tribe)

Aside from environmental and economic benefits, the collaborators hope to create a blueprint for further coal to solar transformations across Central Appalachia.

“There are thousands of acres of former mine lands in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. We think that many of those sites hold potential for solar energy. But we have to learn how to do it right,” said Kreps. “These first projects with Sun Tribe are very exciting because they represent some of the first projects in the entire region.”