By Dave Cooper
I was saddened to read in the February 6 Lexington Herald-Leader that the Enerblu battery plant project proposed for Pikeville in eastern Kentucky has fallen through. In the article “Enerblu suspends plans for hundreds of jobs in state,” by Will Wright and Bill Estep, the company press release noted a “series of unexpected geopolitical factors.”
Some have speculated that ‘geopolitical factors’ refers to President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel that would be needed to build the factory. However, the lithium battery storage industry is growing and changing at a rapid pace, thanks to Elon Musk and Tesla, so it could mean something else. At any rate, Enerblu’s primary investor has pulled out.
Enerblu wants to build – in America – electric vehicles such as school buses, airport shuttles, delivery vans and so on using their lithium titanate battery technology, which they claim has faster charging times. These batteries could also be used for energy storage facilities tied to wind farms, and for military applications.
This is a discouraging moment for anyone who cares about clean energy and economic development in Appalachia. Enerblu had planned to hire 875 people at good salaries, and announcement of the project had brought some much-needed hope and optimism to Pike County. A major clean energy plant in eastern Kentucky could transform the mindset and politics of the region, and help wean it from coal addiction.
Enerblu had planned to build a 60,000 square foot plant in the Kentucky Enterprise Industrial Park, located on a reclaimed mountaintop removal mine site called Marion Branch. (I have been to this site: we planted tree seedlings there with students from Xavier University and Green Forests Work).
However, difficulties have arisen with the site preparation: Enerblu’s co-founder Xavier Guerin has said “It’s very difficult to build on old mines. Every week we have meetings with the architects. They keep finding new issues.”
Mountains in eastern Kentucky with underground mines sometimes have mine cracks – holes in the earth – from subsidence. Underground mining is an inexact process, and the land above can sink over time, especially with longwall mining and retreat mining, which removes the supporting pillars that hold up the roof.
In surface mining, dozer operators move vast amounts of rock and earth, and the only compaction is from the weight of the dozer tracks, rolling back and forth over the rubble. While this weight is considerable, the goal of surface mining is to remove the coal as quickly and cheaply as possible – it isn’t to properly compact the soil for some future factory buildings. That is someone else’s problem.
But oh, how the coal industry has misled the public. The former heads of the Kentucky Coal Association have repeatedly told us that mountaintop removal is good for economic development because it creates usable flat land for development: “We’re creating land for sustainable development for future generations,” said KCA President Bill Caylor in 2005. In 2009, Joe Lucas of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said “In many places, mountain-top mining, if done responsibly, allows for land to be developed for community space.”
Yet we have seen site problems at the Big Sandy Federal Penitentiary (aka “Sink Sink” prison) built on a former mountaintop removal mine in Martin County, schools built on former mine sites where the doors won’t close properly (McDowell County, West Virginia) highways with huge wallows (the new section of US 52 between Williamson and Matewan, West Virginia), and on and on.
Adding to the sense of disappointment is the recent decision by AppHarvest cancelling their plans to build an enormous greenhouse operation on the same Pike County site. The company has decided to build instead near Morehead, so at least there will still be jobs for eastern Kentucky, but not in the coalfields. AppHarvest, which plans to hire 140 workers and invest $60 million dollars, said the Pike County industrial park land was not suitable to build something “as fragile as a greenhouse,” according to a Lexington Herald Leader story dated January 4.
Fortunately, the tanker truck manufacturer SilverLiner is going ahead and building their new plant in the Pike County industrial park, promising 300 jobs, but to me the most hopeful proposal is the one by Adam Edelen, a Democratic candidate for governor: A 50-100 megawatt solar installation on top of a former mountaintop removal mine in Pike County. Solar panels do not care if the land subsides a little bit, and the project would reportedly train 400 former miners to install solar panels. There are already some solar panel installations in the former Harlan County mining towns of Benham and Lynch, Kentucky – I think there are more public installations of solar panels in Harlan County than in Lexington/Fayette County, which should give our Lexington city leaders pause.
Lithium mining for batteries is a fast-growing industry, because these batteries are being used in power tools, laptops, cars, buses and many more applications. Lithium is an element which is extracted primarily in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Mining companies drill into underground pools looking for lithium-rich brine, pump it to the surface and let the brine evaporate in the sun, to concentrate the lithium. Workers sometimes stand in the brine and shovel the evaporated salts into trucks for further concentration processes. Although there is a lot of lithium in the earth, problems arise with the mining companies demand for water in arid parts of South America. Indigenous groups state “We can’t eat batteries.”
Lithium is also an anti-depressant prescribed by psychiatrists. I won’t be surprised to read, sometime in the near future, about the health effects on the lithium miners.