IN DEPTH: Massive, federal project will merge multiple facets of energy industry in Nicholas County

SUMMERSVILLE, WV (WOAY) – It’s a new day for the energy industry in Nicholas County, where two massive former surface mines will be converted into solar sites capable of producing 250 megawatts of energy.

The Department of Energy is contributing $129 million dollars in federal funds to support the development, branding it as a “model for transition.”

In a fact sheet that it circulated, the Department of Energy said it would “reduce development on sensitive natural and agricultural land, produce and deliver clean power to local communities, and lay the groundwork for a regional economic revitalization starting with the workforce.”

The Nicholas County Commission was instrumental in securing the money. Commission President Garrett Cole traveled to Washington, D.C. to aid in negotiations.

“The commission here and then a few commissioners of the past was able to tee up this project. We were able to get our ground game put together. And then as the president of the commission, they were able to tap me and take me to Washington, DC, the Department of Energy,” Cole said. “I was able to share a little bit of the local feel. We are a coal mining community. We still have mining going on. We’re not afraid of the future, but we’re not going to let go or forget our past either.”

The commission was not at the forefront of this project. That role went to Savion, the company actually building the site.

Savion has not released a statement or any additional information about the project. However, the commission said that the money that Savion is contributing to the project itself brings the total investment north of $250 million.

In its press release, the Department of Energy suggested that the two sites are completely inactive. That is not quite accurate.

The project merges the old with the new in the energy industry. On the surface, where there is no more coal left to mine, enough solar panels to power 39,000 homes will be constructed.

That power will be sold back into the grid from there.

Meanwhile, deep underground, coal mining will still be in full force. The Nicholas County Commissioners say that there are several active and proposed mining operations underneath of the site.

“There are three coal mineable coal seams that are still located underground of this former surface mine that is still going to be eligible for mining as time goes on,” Commissioner D. Craig Chapman said. “The three seams that are available are deep, underground mining only.”

Making sure that coal would not be left out was a major priority for the commissioners and featured prominently in its negotiations with the Department of Energy.

“This was a county that we were willing to step up and say that we’re willing to look into the diversification of other aspects of energy,” Cole said. “We didn’t really have to give up our morals, values, ethics or anything. We were willing to work with them to add to the green agenda, but in a responsible way that doesn’t take away from industries or citizens here in Nicholas County.”

Although something needed to happen on the surface of the sites, the land had certain limitations that made it difficult to use.

“The surface reserves are depleted. So nothing else can be mined from the surface… Everywhere this is gone, there is no coal left. It’s completely been turned over and taken out,” Chapman said. “When you take the coal out and the ground is not compacted, you really can’t build back on top of it without a lot of work. Some of these old mining areas, solar, wind, things like that still work on them.”

The panels will be specifically made with the conditions of the site in mind and will be able to withstand the shifting of the ground underneath them.

Commissioners hope that the work that they and others on the project have done so far can help provide a model for the state moving forward.

“I hope that we actually have the design that that that the rest of the state will follow along with the other counties that I’m sure have some sort of resources, whether it be a solar or some other alternate energy aspect,” Commissioner Gary Roberts said. “It’s an outside of the box, a different paradigm shift of thinking, and we were able to identify a resource we have.”

The project has drawn mixed opinions at the state level. When asked about the project specifically in one of his briefings, Governor Jim Justice expressed some trepidation.

“If we don’t watch out, it’s going to take away our tax dollars. Those dollars are somehow going to be used against us to try to kill coal. I’m not there,” Justice said.

Those comments came the same day the governor vetoed a bill that would have expanded solar energy capacity for utility companies. He opposed the bill for the same reasons he was hesitant about the Nicholas County project, saying he was worried about the impact on coal companies.

However, the governor’s concerns do not apply to the Nicholas County project. The sites where solar panels are being constructed no longer hold any coal.

Further, the project will actually boost tax revenue for Nicholas County, since the properties were contributing essentially nothing.

“On our tax rolls it was probably 60 some hundred dollars in taxes that we collect. Now we’re going to collect over $300,000 here for 40 years,” Chapman said.

Newswatch reached out to Governor Justice for clarification on his comments. At the time of publication, he did not return our request.

At the end of the day, the project was the perfect fit. The commission had the land that was perfectly positioned to enter the grid, and there were partners ready to get it done.

It allows Nicholas County to bridge the gap between its history and future.

“We want to build bridges, not walls. We definitely want to bridge our heritage along with the future of West Virginia as well as the United States as a whole,” Roberts said. “We have a lot of jobs and a lot of a lot of ancillary jobs that are dependent upon coal, which we want to make sure that we embrace and continue on with while we pull additional revenue.”

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