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[Editor’s Note: Dan Hofmann is President of RegenEn Solar, a solar panel installation company located in Louisville, KY.]

I was reading an article recently about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining and got to thinking…

How many square miles have been cleared in Kentucky for MTR? And, if we covered all that space with photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, how much electricity in kilowatt-hours (kWh) would be produced? Would it be enough to match the electricity consumed in Kentucky each year?

What about MTR in the U.S.? If we covered all the square miles that have been cleared for MTR in the U.S. with PV solar panels, what percentage of the national annual kWh consumption could be provided?

I decided to crunch the numbers and what I discovered was quite intriguing…

According to the Appalachian Voices website (a non-profit committed to protecting the land, air, and water of the central and southern Appalachian region), 574,000 acres (897 square miles) of land in Kentucky has been surface mined for coal and more than 293 mountains have been severely impacted or destroyed by MTR coal mining.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy website, the total electricity consumption in Kentucky (residential, commercial, and industrial) in 2005 was 89,351,000,000 kWh.

The following projection is based on experience from PV solar installations already in place here in Kentucky and from the fact that we get four and a half hours of sunlight per day on average, accounting for clouds. To produce that much electricity in one year from PV solar panels in this region, around 190 square miles of land would need to be covered by a 69.1 GW (gigawatt) solar array. And, 897 square miles of land has been has been flattened by MTR. Therefore, if we merely put PV solar panels on 1/5th of our already cleared land, we would supply all of the electricity needs for the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky!

If we covered the entire 897 square miles of cleared MTR space in Kentucky, we could supply nearly 10% of the electricity needs of the entire United States!

Additionally, according to the Appalachian Voices website, a total of 1,160,000 acres (1,813 square miles) of land has been surface mined for coal in the central and southern Appalachian region. According to the Central Intelligence Agency website, the United States consumed a total of 3.873 trillion kWh of electricity in 2008.

To produce that much electricity in one year from PV solar panels in this region, 8,225 square miles of land would need to be covered. Accordingly, roughly 22 percent of the electricity consumed in America could be provided by PV solar panels if the 1,813 square miles of land cleared by MTR in Appalachia were covered.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: that’s great, but how much would it cost? And, what about energy storage so we can use that electricity at night? I’ll admit that projecting the costs for a solar array of this size if pure conjecture, but I’ll do my best.

Currently, large scale, megawatt PV solar panel arrays cost around $3 per watt to install without tax subsidies. A GW scale solar array might be closer to $2 per watt installed. Using this metric, it would cost about $138 billion to install the 69.1 GW solar array required to produce 100% of the electricity consumed in Kentucky per year. If the solar panels have the industry standard 25-year warranty, the cost of electricity comes to 6.2 cents per kWh. That’s cheaper than what consumers in Kentucky pay for electricity right now (e.g. LG&E residential customers pay 7.9 cents/kWh).

There are many options available now for grid level energy storage, including, but not limited to: pumped hydro, compressed air energy storage (CAES), sodium-sulfur batteries, lead acid batteries, nickel-cadmium batteries, flywheels, and lithium ion batteries. Empty, abandoned coal mines in Germany are being looked at for pumped hydro energy storage for renewable energy systems. Something I would assume we have plenty of in Kentucky.

Adding energy storage could cost around $1 per watt to the solar array. This would increase the cost of the array for Kentucky to $207 billion with an electricity cost of around 9.3 cents per kWh. That price per kWh is a little above what LG&E customers are paying right now, but will soon be on par with current rates as LG&E recently requested the Kentucky Public Service Commission to allow rates to increase by 19 percent over the next five years.

Again, the cost projection is all conjecture and does not include grid transmission and maintenance. But it’s a start.

This sounds like a lot of money until you consider that, according to a study by the Environmental Law Institute (Warning: PDF), the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. received $72 billion in subsidies from 2002 to 2008. Imagine using that money to fund a GW solar project in Kentucky!

Here’s some evidence that solar does work here, some public viewing of our solar installation’s real-time and historical electricity production: Highlands, Louisville, KYRadcliff, KYFrankfort, KY.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. That is certainly interesting. A couple thoughts:

    1. Would cleared mountaintops really be suitable locations for solar panels? I’ve only seen large arrays in desert-type places where there’s lots of flat land, and cleared mountains like the one pictured wouldn’t seem to be as suitable.

    2. Coal is such huge part of the state’s economy that if anyone were to actually propose a change of this kind, there’d be zero political willpower to implement it (not to mention considerable political pressure to oppose it). And solar panels may provide temporary jobs during the installation phase, but after that a solar array wouldn’t employ anywhere near the number of people that coal mining does today. I’m not arguing our economy SHOULD be coal-based, but it is, and any proposal to address the problems with MTR needs to take that into account.

    3. It would really be interesting for someone with the right skills and knowledge to do a cost-benefit analysis and see if it could be profitable for a private company to install a large-scale array like this and sell power back to the grid.

  2. Jeff,

    Thanks for the comment, I’ll do my best to answer your questions. This could also be the outline for my next OP-Ed, so thanks for the constructive criticism!

    1. I don’t think every inch of the land damaged by MTR would be suitable for a solar array, but as I point out in my OP-ED, only 1/5th of the already cleared land needs to be covered to supply all of Kentucky’s electricity needs. So, that’s leaves you room to be picky on where you want to put the panels. And, you don’t need flat land for a solar farm, just look at the gorgeous array on rolling hills in Le Mées, France:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/picture/2011/may/26/solar-photovoltaic-france

    2. In the link below, you’ll see that…

    – Mining jobs only account for 1% of the entire Kentucky workforce.
    – The coal industry is a net-loser for the Kentucky economy costing the state $115 million in 2006: “Coal is responsible for an estimated $528 million in state revenues and $643 million in state expenditures.”
    – People employed in the coal industry has steadily fallen from 47,000 employed in 1979 to 18,000 in 2006.

    http://www.maced.org/coal/exe-summary.htm
    http://www.coaleducation.org/Ky_Coal_Facts/default.htm

    In the link below you’ll see that in the solar industry, “20 manufacturing and 13 installation/maintenance jobs [are created] per installed megawatt.” If you apply that to the 69.1 GW solar array in my OP-ED proposal, you would be creating 1,382,000 manufacturing jobs and 898,300 installation/maintenance jobs, for a total of 2,280,300 jobs! Even if that is off by a bit, that’s much better than 18,000 coal mining jobs in an industry on its way out, not to mention the horrible working conditions for those people. The maintenance alone for a system this size could employ 18,000. In my projections, a 69.1 GW solar array would consist of over 300 million solar panels. For 18,000 workers, that would be nearly 17,000 solar panels per worker to maintain.

    http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/news.feature/id/1449

    We can manufacture the solar panels right here in Kentucky and keep those facilities going and export the panels to the rest of the country and internationally. There’s already a company doing that in Danville, KY: http://www.altenergiesky.com/solar.php

    3. I’ve run the numbers and I know my company could do this profitably. If course, I would have to hire about 18,000 people to do it! 🙂

  3. Thanks for the reply, David. Re point 3: So why not start small? If you can sell solar power to LG&E/KU cheaper than they can generate it with coal, seems like it’d be a no-brainer for them.

  4. We’ve already started small, we’ve done plenty of solar installations around town. But, one of the points of my OP-ED is you get huge economies of scale with solar for large projects. Even if you break this unimaginably big project down over 50 years, you could still get exceptionally good pricing on economies of scale. That would also answer your questions about providing long-term jobs. Also, LG&E is still paying less than that for their electricity supply, probably something like 3 cents/kWh. But 10, 20 or 30 years from now, who knows what the price for solar could be. Could it be 3 or even 1 cent/kWh? We’ll see…

  5. Thanks Branden! I hadn’t seen that, it’s great to see other people out there have the same idea. Shouldn’t be surprised though, because it seems like such a no-brainer to me. The land is already destroyed, might as well use it!

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