Mining the Sun is a Game Changer

By Lynn Scarlett, Co-Chief External Affairs Officer, The Nature Conservancy


Once a practice restricted to environmental activists, recycling has become mainstream. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycle or compost more than 34 percent of their waste, or about one and a half pounds of trash per person each day.

We even recycle our land. Decades ago, a Michigan town turned a landfill into a park (remember Mount Trashmore?), and since then, communities have built golf courses on landfills, apartments on abandoned industrial sites, and even formerly contaminated nuclear-materials sites have been cleaned up for use as parks.

Now, recycling former mine lands for reuse as solar-energy installations could provide clean power, jobs and revenue for communities from the Great Basin to the Appalachians. And the partnerships making this possible are changing the game for solar energy and economic development.



Mining for coal, gold, lead, copper and other minerals has left behind a lot of land that’s not always easy to reuse, despite laws that may require the mining company to reclaim the land after the minerals have been carted away. When it comes to land that was mined for coal, for example, many sites predate reclamation laws, and even when regulations are in place, the stony, heavily compacted soil sometimes left behind makes it hard to plant trees or grow crops. In addition, these properties may have contaminated water and unstable soils.

There is a lot of this land around, and in two locations in the United States separated by more than 2,000 miles, uncommon partnerships are forming to find ways to use these lands to promote economic revival in mining communities and make the transition to a low carbon future.

In the East, around 1.5 million acres of former mine lands, an area larger than Delaware, stretch across the Central Appalachian region from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. The Nature Conservancy estimates that hundreds of thousands of acres could be suitable for solar, enough to install dozens of gigawatts that could provide sufficient power to millions of homes (and businesses) across the region.

We’re looking at this opportunity in the broader context of West Virginia’s transitioning economy. Hard hit by shifting energy markets and the slide in coal production, the Mountain State is struggling. We’ve been listening as community and state leaders consider the state’s future. In meetings over a two-year period with state business, non-profit, and government leaders, along with representatives of local communities, we’ve explored various types of nature-friendly economic development, including forestry, outdoor recreation, and solar energy.

Now we want to put these ideas on the ground. We’re working with the Coalfield Development Corporation to secure funding to develop a 20,000-acre site of former mine lands and surrounding forests on which we plan to build out large-scale solar energy, responsible forestry and workforce development, among other projects.

Click through to see more visualizations of how West Virginia is using nature to transform its economy.


Far to the west, in Nevada, mining companies, renewable-energy developers, and conservationists have worked together to help one of Nevada’s oldest industries (mining) play a key role in the future of one of the state’s newest (renewable energy) industries, all while benefiting the environment.

Based on a proposal developed jointly by The Nature Conservancy and the Nevada Mining Association, the Nevada state government approved a change in regulations this summer allowing formerly mined lands in the state to be developed for renewable-energy projects.  As the state possesses the largest hard rock (non-coal) mining industry in the United States, the decision immediately makes available tens of thousands of acres for potential development, with more in the queue. Solar is likely to be the dominant energy source, but the proposal considers wind and other energy sources as well.

For conservationists, guiding the development of renewable energy toward formerly mined lands has a dual benefit of encouraging low-carbon energy while keeping large scale-renewable projects away from lands that can better serve as habitat for wildlife and natural environments. A 2016 study shows that over the next two decades, new energy construction in the U.S. could spread across an area the size of Nebraska. Better to locate this development on lands that already are disturbed than to convert natural lands.

Mining the sun in Nevada and West Virginia won’t, on its own, bring prosperity to every struggling mining town or solve the nation’s problems with greenhouse-gas emissions. But it’s a start. And even more important than the clean energy and the jobs are the partnerships being forged. Miners and conservationists, people from cities and from rural areas, stakeholders of every description are starting conversations and building relationships based not on political ideology but on a sincere interest in moving forward toward a better life for future generations.



Meet the Author
Protect. Transform. Inspire. The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to be a leader in taking on the most complex challenges facing the planet. Our place-based projects in over 40 countries serve as living laboratories where new ideas to protect nature are tested, perfected and adapted for other places. We engage businesses, governments and communities in delivering these on-the-ground results – demonstrating how conservation innovations can transform how our food, water and energy are produced. And by empowering more leaders and communities all over the world with solutions that work, we will inspire action at the scale of the challenge.