Massey Energy and other coal-based energy companies could increase profits and preserve the Appalachians by choosing not to engage in mountaintop removal (MTR). Instead of flattening a projected 1 million acres over the next decade, energy companies like Massey could instead use the land to develop a local mountain based economy integrating mountain sited wind turbines, farming, recreational facilities, sustainable forestry, and underground coal mining.
A million acres is equivalent to a square piece of land with sides 40 miles long. There is an alternative and likely more efficient way to utilize this vast amount of land than MTR, which generally renders it economically useless even after reclamation. Data from the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center (Est. 2002) and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) show that a large percentage of Southern Appalachian land is rated as class 2 and class 5 wind resources. Data also show that a wind turbine sited in these areas is capable of producing between 3.2 and 3.8 million kWh on an annual basis . A recent study carried out by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) estimates that mountainous regions (similar to Southern WV) can likely support an average of at least one turbine every 26 acres. This implies that 1 million acres of land could support roughly 38,000 turbines that annually produce 3-4% of total US electric demand. The actual footprint of these turbines would be roughly 10,000 acres, leaving a surrounding 990,000 acres of untouched forested land.
In 2004, 389.3 million short tons of coal were extracted from Appalachia: 65% via underground mining & 35% via surface mining. This coal fueled the production of 600 billion kWh of electricity for consumers, which comprised 15% of total US electric consumption (10% from deep mining and 5% from surface mining ).
The Southern Appalachian regions with the highest wind potential usually correspond to those with the greatest variation in topography. It is also the case that these areas are the most likely to be flattened and mined via MTR. According to NREL, once an area has been flattened by MTR, its wind potential is reduced to the extent that it is no longer economically viable to develop for wind turbine use. If current trends continue over the next 10 years, MTR will be responsible for flattening 1 million acres of mountain land as well as the destruction of wind resources capable of providing the US with continuous, inexpensive, abundant, emission-free electricity.
The most efficient use of Appalachian land likely merits the discontinuation of MTR coupled with the development of mountain based wind farms. If this occurs, over the next 10 years coal companies could continue to provide the energy required to meet at least 13-14% of US electric demand via wind turbines and deep mining. In addition, if coal companies chose this path as opposed to MTR, 10 years down the road they will be left with close to 1,000,000 acres of forested land suitable for economic development that also supplies 3-4% of US electric demand in perpetuity.
In stark contrast to MTR, developing mountains in this manner presents an opportunity for coal companies, local citizens, as well as politicians to collaborate in a mutually beneficial economy as opposed to wasting time and resources in constant conflict. The potential transition of companies like Massey Energy from sellers of MTR coal to producers of deep mined coal and electricity presents a win-win opportunity by which:
Coal companies could continue to generate large revenues and supply energy in a more economically and environmentally sustainable manner.
New local jobs would be created for citizens in agriculture, hospitality and tourism, and wind turbine maintenance.
Tax revenues from energy production would help bolster the local community.
Politicians would have more revenue at their disposal and could concentrate on other pressing issues.
Small seams of coal do not merit the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains. If coal based companies like Massey redefine themselves as producers of wind energy and coal, energy production in the Appalachians can become a mutually beneficial, efficient, community supported endeavor. Over the next 10 years, instead of replacing currently forested mountains with a flat, barren landscape, capable of little economic productivity, profitable domestic companies could develop it to perpetually generate 4% of US power from a clean and safe source. If this paradigm shift were to occur, it would ensure that the Appalachian Mountains remain intact while energy companies remain profitable in perpetuity. Local communities would prosper with new jobs and a healthy environment would be guaranteed to present and future generations.
Mike Roth is a student at Obelin College who wrote this article for a course in environmental policy.