Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Can Mining Provide a Renewable Energy Future?

• August 22, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Developers are looking into mining waste heaps as a home for solar panels and windmills.

It’s difficult to look out over miles of waste rock and tailings from a century of copper mining in the American Southwest and see anything but environmental destruction. But a growing number of mining companies and renewable energy developers are beginning to use these vast plains of disturbed dirt as the ideal spots for large-scale solar and wind power projects.

Mine sites in the region attract developers such as Tessera Solar for several reasons, said communications manager Janette Coates. Existing transmission lines, available water and roads capable of supporting wide, heavy loads provide ready-made infrastructure. And reclaiming land that’s already been disturbed will reduce permitting costs. Another draw is the potential to lease large tracts from a single owner.

Plus, as demonstrated by last year’s controversy over Mojave Desert land suggested as a home for solar arrays, projects planned for “spoiled” land face fewer political headwinds that threaten renewable energy proposals in more pristine areas.

There’s enough disturbed land at these mine sites for projects to provide a reasonable amount of power.

The potential exists at one particular Arizona mine with 10,000 acres of waste rock and tailings to produce up to 1 gigawatt of combined solar and wind power, about as much as an average coal-fired power plant, said Blair Loftis, national director of alternative and renewable energy for Kleinfelder, a large engineering consultant firm.

“It’s incremental over time,” Loftis said. “The developers we talk to are extremely excited about it because for them it’s the path of least resistance.” Wind and solar developers, he said, could save up to 15 percent off their startup costs on a mine site.

Loftis said he believes such projects may be on the cusp of a boom that could spur the economy, reclaim jobs in depressed mining towns and contribute to the nation’s renewable energy goals. Momentum is gaining, he said, to transform large swathes of former mining land into renewable energy hot spots.

For example, Tessera has projects on mine sites in developmental stage, though Coates said the company wasn’t ready to make any announcements because the projects are “still new and in their infancy.” Tessera also owns Stirling Energy Systems, which makes solar units that use a mirrored dish to focus the sun’s heat on a hydrogen-fueled engine, said to be among the most efficient forms of solar energy.

Freeport-McMoRan Gold and Copper recently announced a proposed a 15-megawatt solar energy plant at its Bagdad Mine in Prescott, Ariz., making it the largest proposed solar plant in the state. Developers will sell its energy to the Arizona Public Service Company, which helps the power company meet its renewable energy needs.

Hundreds of proposed abandoned mine sites have been floated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for renewable energy projects under a two-year effort called Re-Powering America’s Land.  The program encourages private developers to transform abandoned mines, landfills, Superfund sites and brownfields into something positive. In some cases, the energy produced actually helps power cleanup efforts such as filtering contaminated groundwater.

The EPA has achieved several success stories, such as a solar array on a landfill in Colorado and a wind farm on a former New York steel mill. When it comes to active and abandoned mines, though, few projects have moved past the planning stage. There are about 450 abandoned mines in the EPA’s database of potential sites, while specific evaluations and community involvement have occurred at just 20.

Shahid Mahmud, who heads the EPA’s team on abandoned mine land, said mining companies could be doing a lot more. “I wish they would engage more. We talk to them and there’s a lot of potential. From a carbon sequestration point-of-view and greening their practices, it would be good for them to pursue it.”

Outside Questa, N.M., for example, the EPA forced owner Chevron Mining to put up an array of solar panels as part of the environmental cleanup of a steel-alloy mine. Gov. Bill Richardson recently celebrated the groundbreaking of the 1-megawatt system.

Aside from persuasion and clean energy mandates, there are few financial incentives for mining companies to lease their land for renewable energy. Their incentive often has more to do with corporate relations than profit.

“One needs to still make a business case for why it makes sense for a mining company to participate,” said Krishna Parameswaran, director of environmental services and compliance for ASARCO LLC, operator of three mines in the Southwest for the past century. ASARCO recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy and has so far just begun conversations with solar and wind power developers.

Parameswaran, who co-wrote a 2005 book on sustainable mining practices, said mining companies should consider more than financial gains, which would likely be negligible. “Another aspect is on regulatory matters,” he said. “There are laws we have to comply with so there is always a little bit of tension. Working together with regulatory agencies in this area helps build relationships.”

Not to be forgotten is the economic stimulus that larger renewable energy projects provide. Tessera’s 850 MW project breaking ground later this year in California (unrelated to a mine site) will employ 300 to 700 people to build and up to 180 permanent jobs, Coates said.

In Australia, mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are working on plans to host the world’s largest solar power plant — a $1 billion, 250-MW solar thermal system with engineering firm WorleyParsons. They also launched a study last year looking at the potential to build 33 additional solar thermal stations capable of producing 250 MW each by 2020.

“If this really pans out, when you’re done mining, there is some other industrial activity continuing so you don’t have to go through boom and bust cycles,” Parameswaran said.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

David Rosenfeld
David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.

More From David Rosenfeld

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.