2023 Fall Review Recap: Empowering West Virginia

Jay Williams gives a tour of the solar panels at his home in Cairo, WV. (Olivia Miller)

By Olivia Miller and John McFerrin

Members of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy gathered at the newly renovated North Bend State Park lodge in Cairo, WV, for the first in-person Fall Review since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of us, it was the first time visiting the park. The lodge was quaint and homey, tucked into a hardwood forest with views of golden and bright red leaves all around. 

This year’s Fall Review was centralized around the theme of energy. Saturday was packed full of presenters with a wide range of expertise in alternative energy. It is no question that an overhaul of our current energy grid is inevitable in the United States, but how we get there exactly is complex and often confusing. Phrases and ideas like a just energy transition, carbon capture and sequestration, green, blue and grey hydrogen, and small modular nuclear reactors get tossed around a lot, but what do they mean? What are their challenges, benefits, drawback, and consequences? Are they viable? Can they merge with our current infrastructure and laws? Do we as consumers get a choice in what powers our homes? We were ready to find out. 

Bright and early on Saturday morning, we hit the ground running with a presentation by Stephen Boyers of Solar Holler. With a coffee in one hand, a notebook and pen in the other and an open mind full of optimism and eagerness to learn, we were ready to dive into the emerging world of alternative energy and how it could reshape the Mountain State. 

Headquartered in Shepardstown, Solar Holler prides themselves as an ‘Appalachian company for Appalachians’ and aims to make solar power affordable and accessible. Historically, solar power has been viewed as too expensive, unattainable, and too complicated to install on the average home, Solar Holler is here to tell you that that is no longer the reality. 
          Solar Holler has installed more than 1,000 solar panel units for residential homes and commercial businesses since their founding in 2014. Their systems are 100% American made, with the panels themselves being produced in Georgia. The company is a for-benefit solar energy corporation, meaning they balance making a profit while simultaneously addressing social, economical and environmental needs of their service area. Above all, they are committed to bringing clean energy to the Mountain State and will single-handedly do all the heavy lifting for you. If you are wondering whether solar will work for you and the location of your home, Solar Holler offers a free assessment and follow-up consultations at their website sollarholler.com

Following Solar Holler we switched gears with a buzz-worthy presentation by Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the WV Water Research Institute at West Virginia University, on recovering rare earth elements from acid mine drainage in WV watersheds. The process is convoluted, so let me break it down. More than a century’s worth of acid mine drainage has seeped its way into our waterways and is the single biggest detriment to the health of our rivers and streams. 

Scientists now know that acid mine drainage contains a valuable combination of elements called rare earths. These materials are used to manufacture the devices that power our modern lives. Rare earths are used in rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars, solar panels, wind turbines, superconductors, our cellphones, and much more. Historically, China has dominated the rare earth industry and the United States is desperate for a domestic supply.

For better or for worse, WV has a great deal of acid mine drainage to treat. The state’s waterways are still being contaminated by mines decommissioned long ago, and likely will be for decades to come. The WV Water Research Institute has developed a new method to reform the acid mine drainage treatment process to extract rare earths.

A pilot plant is currently under construction at Mt. Storm and the first batch of pre-concentrate rare earths was produced at the plant on Sept. 28, 2022. The going rate for preconcentrate ranges between $150/ton to $850/ton. Ziemkiewicz hopes this new technology and added potential to make a buck off toxic waste will incentivize coal companies to treat acid mine drainage. 

Eriks Bolis of the WV Nature Conservancy brought us back around to the possibilities of solar energy with a hopeful presentation on the emerging opportunity for WV to transform its many abandoned coal fields to solar fields. 

In 2019, the Nature Conservancy purchased 253,000 acres of forest in the Central Appalachian Mountains that it calls the Cumberland Forest Project—which encompasses six former mine sites. The Nature Conservancy has identified the Appalachians as one of the most important places on Earth to carry out conservation work due to the regions projected climate resilience, strong biodiversity and carbon dense forests.

To bring the former surface coal mines back into use, the WV Nature Conservancy has developed a holistic plan that will include employment for former mine workers and creates workforce education opportunities for local youth and adults alike. The existing roads, flat, cleared land and expertise of heavy equipment opportunities provide a prime opportunity for renewed use of the denuded land. 

The Nature Conservancy is also exploring the possibility of creating habitats for pollinators underneath the solar panels and establishing public trail systems on the land for members of the community. If successful, the Nature Conservancy hopes to work with private landowners on expanded reforestation efforts on the sites. 

We broke midday for a much-needed dose of fresh air and leg stretch to tour a friend of the Conservancy’s home who had recently installed solar panels on their property. We packed into a few vehicles and made our way to Jay Williams and Cindy Burkhart’s home to view their ground solar unit up close and personal. We congregated around the big, shiny blue panels on the edge of the property as our new friend, Jay, explained how they worked. They kindly allowed us into their home to have a look at the four large batteries supplying power to the house. A live view of the system showing usage rates, battery life, and electricity credits could all be tracked from an app. 

Later, we reconvened back at the lodge’s conference room for a Zoom presentation by Jessica Lovering of the Good Energy Collective on the potential to retrofit coal-fired power plants to small nuclear power plants. While this may be possible elsewhere in the country, Lovering cited a study that suggested WV coal plants would not meet the criteria for nuclear plants due to the state’s steep-sloping terrain. 

For some time, nuclear power has seemed to be a thing of the past, with many countries phasing out their reactors. Events like the Russian-Ukrainian war have prompted countries around the world to restart or build new reactors.  

Lovering made the case for a new kind of nuclear power, that is ‘not your parent’s nuclear.’ Most common beliefs around existing nuclear power are that it is dirty, slow, unsafe, expensive and unnecessary, but engineers are working to commercialize new nuclear technologies and business models to address these issues. She also made the case for a just transition—making sure that fossil fuel workers have real opportunities to find high-quality, well-paid work in new energy jobs.

To date, there has not been a coal-fired power plant that this vision has been carried out on, and research and development is still in its early phases.

Jocelyn Phares, Environmental Resources Analyst at the WV Division of Natural Resources, talked about how the DNR is working to conserve wildlife on pipeline infrastructure. Phares acknowledged that all large linear projects may have adverse impacts to natural resources, and those impacts can be anticipated based on a variety of factors.

The Division of Natural Resources has struck up a unique voluntary agreement with Mountain Valley Pipeline. The voluntary agreement is not at the whim of the state legislature’s spending priorities, but is instead managed by a third-party fiduciary, The Conservation Fund, to meet restoration efforts to the project’s direct impacts. Thanks to this agreement, the Division of Natural Resources will be able to purchase large tracts of interior forests to protect for the citizens of WV.

She also talked about a new process to enable Right of Ways to be pollinator friendly spaces. The process will be applicable for all infrastructure projects—highways, pipelines, electric lines, and solar and wind farms. 

Next we had a discussion from Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, and Andrew Place, Director of United States Energy and Climate Policy at the Clean Air Task Force, on what is called “blue hydrogen” as a potential source of hydrogen for fuel.

            There is no dispute that hydrogen would be useful as a fuel. Using it produces no exhaust other than water vapor. It contains a great deal of energy and would have a wide variety of applications.

            The difficulty is that hydrogen is not accessible in nature as a stand-alone element. It is most commonly either bound up with hydrogen to make water or bound up with carbon and oxygen to make natural gas. Blue hydrogen is the process of taking natural gas and extracting the hydrogen from it.

            The difficulty with extracting hydrogen from natural gas is that the process of extracting one ton of hydrogen produces 10.5 tons of carbon dioxide. While it would be possible to collect the hydrogen for use and release the carbon dioxide (a process called grey hydrogen) that conflicts with goals of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide as a way to avoid climate change. Instead, blue hydrogen seeks to capture the carbon dioxide and either find another use for it or pump it deep underground where it will remain, never being released to the atmosphere.

            The panelists disagreed on the usefulness of this blue hydrogen process. Mr. O’Leary thought that blue hydrogen would be too expensive, requiring an enormous expense both in the equipment to extract the hydrogen and in the pipelines that would be necessary to carry it to where it would be used or stored. He also attacked one of the assumptions in arguments in favor of blue hydrogen. Proponents of blue hydrogen assume that the natural gas industry is an economic benefit to areas where that industry exists. Mr. O’Leary presented statistics tending to show that this was not true.

            Mr. Place, on the other hand, supported blue hydrogen. His assumption is that the problem of climate change is so enormous that we have to do whatever we can.  That includes developing the infrastructure and technology to make blue hydrogen viable.

The day wrapped up with a lively presentation by keynote speaker Professor James Van Nostrand of WVU’s College of Law. Van Nostrand specializes in environmental law and energy policy and recently wrote and published the book, The Coal Trap, documenting what he refers to as “The Lost Decade” that paved the way for poor energy policy and diversification in WV. Between 2009 and 2019, WV politicians aligned themselves with the coal industry, to the detriment of the citizens and the state’s economy. During this time utility rates in WV began to increase. 

By direction of the state’s Public Service Commission, the two major utility companies in WV are currently required to continue operating coal-fired power plants at their historical capacity, even if cheaper sources of energy are available in the wholesale market or from nearby solar and wind projects. The percentage of electricity generated in WV from coal actually increased from 88% in 2020 to 91% in 2021, leading West Virginian’s to be paying some of the highest utility rates in the nation. 

One of the biggest obstacles for diversifying energy in WV lies in the hands of the officials of the Public Service Commission, who are appointed by the Governor. For now, at least, new federal policies that are promoting clean energy are not in line with WV’s state policies that are still clinging to coal. You will hear more about Van Nostrand and his work in future issues of the Voice.        

The fact of the matter is that our energy grid is not a just one. Some people across the nation are benefitting from clean and renewable energy production in their homes, while others are being trapped into fossil-fuel energy generation and higher rates by backward policies. The transition from extractive to renewable energy is a lot to untangle and will likely be painful, but we are well on our way.  

By the end of the day, our brains had soaked up as much information as humanly possible, but we were feeling motivated and inspired. I speak for us all in saying our weekend reconnecting with each other in person and outside of our grid view of Zoom meetings felt extra special coming off the back of the pandemic. The weekend wasn’t all science, either, on Friday evening, we enjoyed a potluck dinner accompanied by a campfire, live music by Corey Bonasso, and a great deal of laughs and conversation. Jackie Burns lead a bird walk and Susan Rosenblum lead a mindfulness walk. We hope you will join us at next year’s Fall Review.