With coal on its last legs in Southwest Virginia, the search is on for new ways to make use of old sites — particularly with an eye toward advancing alternative-energy development.

To that end, the Southwest Virginia Energy Research Authority was hatched this fall, and it recently met in Abingdon “to discuss how it can help grow the region’s economy and review ideas for how to accomplish that goal,” according to the Roanoke Times newspaper.

With this region’s rich history in the energy industry — by way of its long association with coal production for electric power plants — it makes sense that we should be exploring ways to continue that legacy with alternative-energy initiatives.

“Southwest Virginia is a prime location for energy research and development activities that leverage our region’s talent and natural resources,” said Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who promoted the state legislation that led to the authority’s formation, the newspaper reported. “Our legislative delegation is committed to seeing the region build on its long history of energy generation in order to grow our economy.”

According to the story, the 11-member energy research group comprises people appointed by the governor and legislators and has as its chairman Mike Quillen, who also is chairman of the GO Virginia Region One economic development council.

Priorities of the new authority include promoting development of renewable energy generation facilitation on abandoned mine sites, creation of an energy research facility, and development of hydropower pump-storage facilities, like the one the Tennessee Valley Authority operates as the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant near Chattanooga.

The story noted that Dominion Energy is interested in putting a similar facility in Tazewell County. Our Southwest Virginia geography is quite conducive to these facilities, which include a reservoir at the top of a mountain (think former strip-mine sites) into which water from a flowing stream down below is pumped using electricity in off-peak hours.

Then when there is a peak demand for electricity — say, during very hot or cold weather — the reservoir’s water is released into tunnels that channel it back down the mountain and through hydroelectric generators to produce power.

TVA’s Raccoon Mountain facility, in operation since 1978, has enough stored water to run the plant’s four generators for up to 22 hours, according to the TVA website.

Creation of pumped-storage facilities on Southwest Virginia’s abandoned mine sites would not only help generate energy in times of extreme need but would also help reclaim blighted land and give it new life.

TVA notes that the area around the Raccoon Mountain site “is a state-designated Wildlife Observation Area,” and that “The mountaintop is home to whitetail deer, woodchucks, gray foxes and, of course, raccoons. The most compelling wildlife attraction of the area is a large wintering population of bald eagles, which can be sighted from the overlook as they hunt in the woods and waters.”

There are also recreational opportunities. “The adjacent day-use area offers more than 28 miles of mountain biking trails — with names like Live Wire, Megawatt, Switch Yard and High Voltage — for riders of all abilities, as well as a bike-washing station. The trails are open to hikers as well,” the TVA website notes.

Among the other initiatives to be considered by the new energy authority, an energy research facility should be a top priority, as it would help put Southwest Virginia on the map nationwide as a key player in development of alternative energy.

The Roanoke Times reported that Michael Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, “said the idea of an energy park for the purposes of research has been discussed for years, but he’d like to see a plan for that move forward to advance the energy development priorities. He envisioned testing and doing demonstrations of technology for pumped-storage facilities.”

“The thing that is intriguing about this is that there is not anywhere in America where this exists where you can have energy-type projects tested independently,” Quillen said, according to the story.

Karmis also stressed the need for workforce development in the region, which he said would be “crucial to the effort” of promoting alternative-energy projects and sites in Southwest Virginia. Those projects would need a ready workforce, he added.

Those who were involved in setting up this initiative to promote development of alternative energy in our region are to be commended for their vision. And those who are now charged with making it happen should work diligently to achieve these goals.

It makes sense for Southwest Virginia — and for our nation, as well.

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