A first-of-its-kind “energy technology testbed” that will turn some of the 100,000 acres of former coal mining sites in Southwest Virginia into laboratories to promote energy innovation will be developed, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced Tuesday.

“The Energy DELTA Lab delivers on our vision to define Virginia as a force in energy innovation,” Youngkin said in a news release. “No other project like it exists in the United States. With this energy testbed, we see a commitment to transformation, encouragement for startup enterprises and support for the development of promising careers in exciting new fields.”

The announcement came the day after the governor rolled out a new energy plan that called for innovation in energy technologies.The plan mentioned the Energy DELTA project.

The initial site will be near the town of Pound in Wise County on property owned by the Cumberland Forest Limited Partnership and managed by the Nature Conservancy.

The site will be used as a lab for advanced solar and energy storage, according to Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies, the firm leading business development for the Energy DELTA Lab and InvestSWVA.

The first site will likely not be up and running for at least two years, he said.

A second site, also in Wise County, will be announced later this month, he added.

“We currently have a number of projects in the due diligence phase related to both sites worth over a billion dollars,” Payne said Tuesday.

Plans call for possible additional sites around the region.

DELTA, which stands for discovery, education, learning and technology accelerator, has been four years in the making. It is a collaborative effort by the Virginia Department of Energy, the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, and its business development partner InvestSWVA.

The DELTA initiative was developed through a $975,000 grant from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program, which supports economic efforts by regions impacted by the downtown in the coal industry.

Payne said DELTA will serve as a hub between landowners, prospects, utilities and broadband companies. He emphasized that the purpose of the effort is not just research and development, but job creation and economic development.

He added that the land and its assets above and below the ground will be the lab – there will not be a traditional lab or classroom involved.

Mike Quillen, who founded and was CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, is chair of the Energy DELTA Lab and the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority.

“The Energy DELTA Lab is a concept becoming reality in the most logical place for it to happen,” Quillen said. “Our work in being part of the global energy story is entering another chapter, encouraging a fresh look at energy production and what it means – and requires – to enjoy a successful career in the industry.

Payne called Quillen the “godfather of Southwest Virginia,” and said he lends credibility to the project.

The initial concept for the project was designed by Michael Karmis, former director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, based on what Germany has done with its mine sites, Payne said.

Further study of the concept was led by InvestSWVA and the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission through grants from the GO Virginia One Council and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The region is ideal for research and development of energy technologies because in addition to the former coal mining sites, it has more than 9,000 gas wells, a number of mine cavities and water supplies, diverse terrain, mineral and underground resources, the release states.

“The Energy DELTA Lab’s focus on leveraging legacy energy assets to develop new and innovate energy technologies can only happen in Southwest Virginia,” Payne said. “This is just the beginning of the work we must do together to deliver on our vision to build a new, diversified economy in the region. And, with the Energy DELTA Lab as our vehicle, we can define Virginia as a hub of energy innovation in America.”

The energy technologies mentioned include hydrogen, mine-based geothermal, innovative solar generation and advanced energy storage, including pumped-storage hydro. Also mentioned were small modular nuclear reactors, one of which the governor said Monday he hopes to deploy in Southwest Virginia over the next 10 years.

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Susan Cameron

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee for nearly 40 years. She is based in Bristol. Reach her at susan@cardinalnews.org.