So what the heck is going on in Southwest Virginia?
One day your resident columnist is writing yet another column wringing his hands about the lack of energy research taking place in Southwest Virginia. The next thing you know, the governor is making not one but two announcements about something called the Energy DELTA Lab that will do just that.
So I ask again: What the heck is going on? And I’ll even ask a follow-up: Just what is this Energy DELTA Lab?
The first question is easier to answer than you might imagine: This lab is an outgrowth of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, which the General Assembly created in 2019 at the behest of a Southwest Virginia delegation led by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and then-state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell County. In government time, three years is not a long period of time, so this is actually a pretty quick turnaround. In political terms, Gov. Glenn Youngkin gets to be the beneficiary of three years of patient and tedious work behind the scenes by a lot of people. Much of the development work has been carried on by Will Payne, who heads the InvestSWVA economic group that the Southwest delegation also set up in 2019 with an eye toward diversifying the region’s economy. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I know of no other legislative delegation that is as involved in economic development as the legislators from Southwest Virginia. Of course, other regions don’t face the same challenges that Southwest Virginia does, so there’s that, too. Sadly, Chafin did not live to see this day – he passed away from complications of COVID-19 on New Year’s Day 2021. It would be fitting if somewhere in all this something came to bear his name.
Now onto the second question: The “lab” here is not a white-coats-and-boiling-beakers kind of lab. “The land is the lab,” Payne says, and that’s the essential concept to grasp. When he was running for governor in 2017, Ralph Northam floated the idea of an energy research center devoted to renewables at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Nothing came of that, except for all the words I typed over the next five years about why that was such a good idea. This is not that.
The better comparison here, says retired coal executive Mike Quillen, who chairs the authority, is the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. “When that concept came up the site was a hay field just past the Blacksburg airport without a single building,” Quillen said by email. “However, through hard work and good marketing they started with a couple of buildings and attracted some tenants. Look at it today.” (Quillen is a former rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, so he has more than passing insight into that center.) From its founding in 1985, and its opening in 1988 (there’s another three-year time frame), the Corporate Research Center now claims it has been home to 750 companies – “has been” being the key phrase because some have outgrown the center and moved on to other quarters. Today, broadly speaking, the Corporate Research Center is the epicenter of the technology sector for the New River Valley (a sector that a report by the Brookings Institution earlier this year said has the nation’s third-highest growth rate of tech jobs).
The goal here, as explained to me by Payne and Quillen, is to create the coal country equivalent of the Corporate Research Center by making use of one thing Southwest Virginia has plenty of: former coal mines. The Energy DELTA Lab won’t be a specific building but rather a brand name to pitch that land for energy companies who are looking for a place to test new technologies – be it solar and wind or hydrogen or carbon capture or, yes, even small nuclear reactors. Youngkin has proposed that Virginia be the first in the nation to have one of those small nuclear reactors – called SMRs, for small modular reactor – and wants it to be in Southwest Virginia, ideally on one of those former mine sites the DELTA Lab is acquiring. For our purposes today, I’m going to set aside discussion of nuclear. I realize that’s the headline item in many ways but the lab concept exists separately from that. We can return to the nuclear proposal another day.
Payne envisions as many as a dozen tracts of land across Southwest Virginia over the next 10 years forming the lab. For now, there are two that have been identified, both in Wise County. The first is on 220 acres of former mine land near the town of Pound in the Red Onion section of the county (yes, near the state prison of the same name). That site is owned by the Cumberland Forest Limited Partnership and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The second is about 1,900 acres elsewhere in Wise County, although the owner has not yet been identified.
The idea isn’t for the lab to own the land, but to essentially act as a broker between landowners and energy companies. “Research,” the word I keep using, may not even be the right word here because that conjures up the image of something that might, indeed, take place in a lab. This is research in a different form. “We want to get ’em in that second stage, when they’re ready for a full-scale deployment that could lead to commercialization,” says Will Clear, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Energy. Essentially: Does the idea that worked in the lab work out in the field?
The ultimate goal, Quillen says, is to create jobs. “If we can get ’em here to test their product,” he says, perhaps the company will stay and manufacture its technology in Southwest Virginia. If you think of these test sites as potential industrial parks of the future, you might not be far off. For a long time, people have pondered how to diversify the economy of coal country when so little developable land is available. Here’s one way.
This concept comes at a propitious time in at least five ways:
- There’s a great transition in energy production taking place, with coal losing out to other forms of energy.
- There’s a lot of federal money available for reclaiming abandoned mine land.
- There’s a lot of federal money available for energy research.
- There’s a lot of federal money available for locating clean energy companies in coal country (the so-called Inflation Reduction Act creates $4 billion in tax credits for that purpose).
- We have a governor who is big on pushing innovation in the energy sector. His motives aren’t quite the same as the Green New Dealers who are also pushing innovation in the energy sector – Youngkin strongly backs natural gas, for instance, and not all Green New Dealers are keen on nuclear – but big-picture, they’re all talking the same game: We need to figure out new ways of producing energy. (I dealt with that in a previous column: Here’s the Republican governor of a coal-producing state who isn’t talking up coal.)
None of us knows how all this will play out but the fundamentals sure seem to be in place for this idea to be successful.
As with many things, details matter. It’s easy for some commentators – ahem – to say things like “oh, we should build solar farms on old coal mines.” Quillen points out some of the technical obstacles: Not all mine sites are reclaimed the same way and not all may support the weight of solar panels. “People just assume you’ve got all this flat land, you can put solar on it, but you can’t just go in with an auger like you can up in Iowa,” he says. (I was educated on this in a different way when I recently toured Red Onion State Prison with Attorney General Jason Miyares and former Gov. George Allen. The prison was built on an old mine site and Allen described in glorious detail how the land had to be compacted to make sure it could support the prison.) Here’s an opportunity to run some tests on just which land can support solar farms and which land can’t.
The big buzz in energy circles these days isn’t solar or wind, it’s hydrogen. Both blue hydrogen and green hydrogen – those terms matter to the experts – are touted for lower carbon emissions. Some say those emissions still aren’t low enough; I’m not a scientist so I’ll leave that conversation to them. What I do know is that John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate issues, has enthused over hydrogen. “In my travels around the world I can’t name a country that hasn’t expressed excitement about hydrogen,” Kerry told CNBC. He predicted it may grow into a multi-trillion-dollar industry. Here’s a highly simplified version: Hydrogen fuel requires both natural gas and water. Southwest Virginia is famous for coal but it produces natural gas, too. And it has lots of water – much of it underground in old mines. “These mine pools are a tremendous resource of the region for sure,” Clear says.
So that’s what is happening here: The energy park concept, three years in incubation, has now moved into a more public phase. The project is in the process of acquiring $975,000 in abandoned mine reclamation money for the Pound site, $2 million for the other Wise site. (The money would go toward various types of infrastructure – roads and such.) There appears to be no American equivalent to this concept (although proponents did study one in Germany). There also appears to be no equivalent to the $10 million that Youngkin is proposing for energy research. Of that, $5 million would go toward nuclear research. The Virginia Department of Energy says this Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub “is the first organization to focus on nuclear science and engineering, led by universities and with only state support.” The only thing close would be in Idaho, with its Center for Advanced Energy Studies – but one of the partners there is the U.S. Department of Energy, whose Idaho National Laboratory is involved in nuclear research. The Virginia project is independent of the federal government, at least so far. Youngkin has said he’d like to land some federal dollars. Again, though, let’s think about nuclear separately. You can be against nuclear and for this energy park, if you’re so inclined.
Here’s the big picture: When was the last time a governor – particularly a Republican governor – went to Southwest Virginia to make an energy announcement and didn’t talk about coal? Here are leaders in coal country who are actively looking beyond coal – and looking for ways to transition the region’s energy workforce to all kinds of energy. That seems kind of historic.