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Surface coal mines can be spun into wind energy sources

You would never think the high plains of Converse County,Wyo., had once been the site of a huge surface coal mine. Sagebrush and grassdrapes over rolling hills occasionally visited by pronghorn, while more than150 turbines protrude from the ridges, sucking energy out of the wind.

"It was something that developed over time," saidDavid Eskelsen, a spokesperson for PacifiCorpd/b/a Rocky Mountain Power, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy that operates the project. "Themine and the power plant got started in the 1950s when that was the mosteconomical source for customers at the time," he told S&P GlobalMarket Intelligence. But once the Dave Johnston coal mine was tapped out andreclamation began in the late 1990s, Rocky Mountain Power found a newopportunity for power generation blowing in the wind.

As states, companies and federal agencies continually seeknew uses for abandoned or tapped coal mines, some are turning towards an energysource that many in the industry see as a threat to the very existence of coal– wind power.

"We have been studying surface mine lands in WestVirginia looking at the potential of them for being a future resource for winddevelopment," said George Carico, the director of the West VirginiaBrownfields Assistance Center.

Glenrock wind project at dusk in Wyoming.

Credit: Rocky Mountain Power Inc.

Carico has been working for several years on projects todevelop former mine areas and other industrial sites for new community andeconomic uses, whether industrial, recreational or otherwise. He has beeninvolved with a number of yearlong studies of wind speed, direction andconsistency in a number of different areas around West Virginia, funded by thestate's Division of Energy and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

He has found that the best areas in the state, perhapsunsurprisingly, are on top of mountains, and that the winter is usually betterfor wind than the summer. Some regions are much better than others —particularly a former mining area in Grant and Tucker counties not far fromexisting wind farms near Mount Storm along the state's border with Maryland.

Other areas Carico said are at least marginally interestingfor wind development include ArchCoal Inc.'s surface mine area near Cowen in Webster County andsurface mine properties near the Pax and Kingston areas in Raleigh, Boone andKanawha counties, though Carico noted that wind energy technology will need tobecome more efficient and become advanced enough to deal with lower wind speedclasses before many of these areas could be developed.

Arch did not respond to a request for comment aboutdeveloping wind in the future on mine sites.

Wind power's hat trick

Just a few weeks after the final bond release for thereclamation project was announced, Eskelsen said that wind power was aparticularly good option for the Dave Johnston mine area because threeimportant factors came together. Most importantly, and unlike mining sites inMingo and Wyoming counties in West Virginia that Carico tested, the area has alot of wind. Furthermore, Rocky Mountain Power's parent company already ownedthe land, which alleviated a lot of potential costs.

Equally important to ownership was the presence of theDave Johnstoncoal-burning plant which provided an easy access to transmission infrastructure.

"This one was a convergence of the necessary factors,"Eskelsen said. "It's unique and interesting. It certainly has beenbeneficial to the company and its customers."

That being said, Eskelsen said he does not know of anotherarea with similar characteristics to the Glen Rock area, and he doubts themodel could be replicated unless these factors were similar. "Youbasically have to have all three," he said.

While it may seem like West Virginia's remote coal mineareas might be automatically precluded from use for turbines, Carico said thatcoal producers have built a lot of infrastructure that could help with puttingup turbines and transmitting the energy to the grid.

"Getting turbine blades up to the top of some of theseareas would be impossible without the road networks that they created," hesaid.

Another challenge in the case of West Virginia, according toCarico, is that politics are currently turned against wind power. But he hashope that these attitudes will change in the future as the renewable energysource gets cheaper. Until that day, he said that the data he is stillcollecting will keep for future prospecting.

"West Virginia is a huge energy producer, it has beenfor a long time with coal and natural gas," Carico said. "We knowenergy."