Energy innovation lab eyes new types of economic development for previously mined lands

By: - December 22, 2022 12:59 pm

Mined land in Wise County, Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Southwest Virginia’s efforts to reclaim its status as a U.S. energy capital intensified with the announcement this fall of a new energy technology testbed initiative.

The Energy Discovery, Education, Learning & Technology Accelerator, or DELTA, Lab began earlier this year with its first location in Wise County.

As the name suggests, the lab is a way for researchers to test innovative energy technologies as emerging electricity generation sources and storage become more prevalent.

But the lab isn’t just getting creative with technology. It’s also experimenting with new ways to develop previously mined lands that are different from traditional economic development projects using public industrial sites and prevent them from remaining vacant. 

Backers see the DELTA Lab as a way to generate economic activity in a region that has struggled economically as coal use declines.

“The role of the lab is as a broker connecting energy companies and prospects, assisting with siting what location is best,” said Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies, an economic development consultancy that is one of several organizations involved in the effort.

The lab has also earned the endorsement of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which has been vocal about the state’s lack of “business ready” sites, a designation meaning that land is immediately ready to be built on. If a site isn’t business ready, breaking ground can take months because of the need to conduct environmental studies to mitigate soil damage or deal with past contamination.

Previously mined lands can require significant work for new development,” VEDP President and CEO Jason El Koubi said. “This seems to be an innovative and effective position to advance clean energy on land that was previously contaminated.”

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has also pushed for greater commitments to site readiness. In a budget proposal unveiled last week, he requested an extra $450 million for site development, to be added to a previous $150 million included in this year’s budget.

The DELTA Lab

The inspiration for DELTA Lab is derived from what Germany has done to redevelop mine sites, said Payne, although that country’s efforts have been located more near population centers. In Southwest Virginia, the lab is envisioned as a network of testbed sites that will be located on lands without any plans for buildings, eliminating another need of traditional economic site development.

Instead of the traditional “bench” modeling conducted by universities to develop technologies, the testbed sites will provide power companies a chance to see how their ideas play out in real time. Companies will be able to experiment with their technologies in certain topography types and will have access to the robust power and water sources that are already available at previously mined sites. By creating new sites for this kind of experimentation, local governments will also be able to keep their main industrial parks free for more traditional development.

“We’re capturing a moment right now” by capitalizing on incentives for new energy generation technologies in the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Payne said. He said he’s not aware of a similar testbed initiative in the country.

“We’ve got to be very intentional and careful with how we do this,” said Will Clear, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Energy. “Energy is a natural fit for what we’re really doing. We’ve got the workforce. We’ve got the infrastructure.”

An active surface mine near Wise, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Announced in October, DELTA Lab’s first initiative will be Project Innovation, a test site located on property owned by the Cumberland Forest Limited Partnership and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Project Innovation will hone in on four key areas of research: electricity generation, with a focus on renewables; “geoenergy,” or energy from the earth such as geothermal, “eco-friendly coal” or natural gas; energy delivery systems; and options for reusing renewable energy components and the remains of the fossil fuel industry.

The second concept is Project Oasis, in which data centers will be cooled using water from pools that have collected on previously mined properties. One underground site will provide a consistent 55-degree temperature. 

Third, the lab will host Project Energizer, a small-scale pumped-storage hydroelectric system that generates power by transferring water between reservoirs sited at different elevations in the region’s extremely mountainous terrain. Unlike most hydroelectric plants, Project Energizer will cause minimal land disturbance by using “off-the-shelf” components.

Currently in the works is another project in Wise County that would connect “islands” of smaller parcels to form a 1,300-acre site. 

“Over the next 10 years, I think we can see a dozen locations” that are part of DELTA Lab, Payne said.

VEDP on board

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership is primarily focused on the development of parcels that are 250 acres or larger. As sites get larger and require more work to get up to snuff, their availability shrinks.

According to VEDP’s site search tool,  44 of 901 total sites available for business development in Virginia are 250 or more acres.

A screengrab of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s site search tool showing locations of 205 acres or more. (Courtesy of VEDP)

Youngkin has said the lack of business-ready sites has lost Virginia 55,000 jobs and $124 billion in capital investments to surrounding states since 2016.

“We have to do so much more,” Youngkin said at the Virginia Economic Summit and Forum on International Trade.

El Koubi said efforts like DELTA Lab to repurpose previously mined sites “would complement much of what” VEDP is doing elsewhere in the state. 

The partnership has a business-ready site program that provides grants to localities to develop parcels of lands that are 100 acres or more. But for the Allegheny Highlands and Southwest Virginia region, the program provides funds for similar projects of 50 acres or less.

VEDP says it has helped create 200 jobs in the region since 2021 but Moody’s forecasts project the area will lose almost 1,200 jobs by the end of 2027. 

Projects with a similar scope to those of DELTA Lab can make a difference in the vitality of the region, El Koubi said.

“A handful of projects like this each year could position rural regions to consistently create jobs on a net basis for their citizens,” he said.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics. Catch him in nature experiencing all the outdoors has to offer, and contact him at [email protected]

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