Virginia’s Energy Renaissance: Transforming Coal Lands into a Renewable Future

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On November 1st, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced a monumental step towards diversifying the energy market in Virginia and reinvigorating the economy in the towns and areas devastated by the closures of coal plants in the southwest region. Youngkin announced that a new development agreement will establish a framework for public and private sectors to transform 65 thousand acres of previously mined coal properties, which were owned by the company Energy Transfer, into a haven of new renewable energy projects. To highlight the incredible advantages of this agreement, the announcement deservingly touts that, “more than a dozen projects under consideration today represent in excess of $8.25 billion in potential private capital investment, 1,650 new high-paying jobs, and nearly 1 gigawatt of new power generation and demand.” In an area of Virginia that often receives less support and consideration than other, more population dense, regions of Virginia, this kind of investment is great news for families that currently reside there as well as folks looking for attractive areas to build a life and family.

The siting of renewable energy on brownfields, lands previously developed for industrial purposes but now retired, is not a new idea. However, the option has not seen its full potential realized. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States contains upwards of 43 million acres of brownfields that qualify for renewable energy development. The pending transformation of 65 thousand acres in Virginia barely puts a dent in the amount of brownfields available to developers for renewable energy projects. The siting opportunities represented by brownfields are considerable, making it crucial that their conversion into clean energy developments is further invested in and prioritized to provide the energy growth needed to meet America’s rising energy needs. 

In 2020, the state of Nevada passed legislation that added “renewable energy development and storage” to the list of valid uses of retired mining sites in their state code. Legislation similar to Nevada’s is exactly the type of action that states looking to model Governor Youngkin’s success should be considering to ease the regulatory hurdles to the accessibility of brownfield renewable energy siting. Developing energy projects on land that has been previously terraformed and has existing interconnection to the transmission grid is common sense and environmentally responsible. Governor Youngkin must be further commended for recognizing the many benefits brownfields can offer to clean energy developers.

This move by Governor Youngkin demonstrates exactly the kind of role state governments should be playing in the energy development and affordability conversation. In addition to rolling back red tape regulation for permitting and installation of new energy generation, state governments can act as grand conveners for the private sector, facilitating partnerships and connecting businesses to new opportunities and leaving it to the private sector to decide whether or not they want to seize them. When regulators and legislatures rush to address issues in the energy space, they prevent private industry from innovating new solutions and technologies that could possibly fix the problem more effectively and affordably. Often, government over-involvement creates further issues for energy providers, to the detriment of both ratepayers and the energy goals they hope to achieve. Other Governors, in states that were previously home to major coal industry operators, would do well to model Governor Youngkin’s role in bringing this extremely beneficial public-private partnership to fruition in Virginia.

It is reasonable to expect more energy development projects are on the horizon for the Old Dominion and hopefully more Governors will have the foresight and leadership to develop partnerships like the one Virginia’s Governor Youngkin coalesced.