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Coal mines

Despite promises from then candidate Donald Trump, most experts do not believe coal mining jobs in the U.S. are coming back. While there will be some uses for coal, the use of this fossil fuel is going to continue to shrink.

There are some creative ideas about how to bring back some jobs formerly held by miners to retrofit old coal mines as storage devices that can provide power when wind and solar are not available. In other words, jobs might come back – just as different jobs.


Retrofitted Coal Mines

The technology goes all the way back to 1909 and a Swiss hydroelectric plant. The idea was used in the 60’s and 70’s to store surplus energy from nuclear plants. Since then it has been ignored.

The way it works is that electricity from wind and solar farms is used to pump water up from underground into a reservoir on the surface over an old abandoned mine. When utility companies need power, the water is allowed to drain through turbines to the bottom of the mine – thereby producing electricity. It resulting project is called a pumped-hydro facility.

Why Not Use Batteries?

One logical sounding question is: Why not just store excess power in batteries? The problem is that lithium ion batteries – like those used in Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLAC) cars. Unfortunately, lithium ion batteries can’t be built large enough to store the vast amount of power produced by a wind or solar farm.

As a result, developers in Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. have begun trying to retrofit old abandoned coal mines and use gravity to build the equivalent of a giant mechanical ‘battery’ capable of producing electricity on demand.

Projects Underway

In California, Eagle Crest Energy Co. has set up a partnership with NextEra Energy, Inc. (NYSE:NEEC) to build a 1.3 gigawatt, pumped-hydro facility near Desert Center. The project, which will cost $2 billion, has already been approved by federal regulators and could stockpile enough electricity to power nearly 1 million homes.

In Virginia, Dominion Energy Inc. (NYSE:DC) and American Electric Power (NYSE:AEPB) Appalachian Power are each looking into adding a new facility in Virginia’s southwestern coalfield region. One huge advantage of these types of projects over batteries – should large enough batteries ever be developed – is that they offer high capacity, last for a century or more and are virtually maintenance free.


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Which brings back the subject of jobs. Virginia state senator, Ben Chafin, believes pumped-hydro facilities, each of which cost about $1 billion to build, represents important employment opportunities for unemployed miners.

According to Chafin, a $1 billion construction project could put plenty of former miners back to work for a long time.

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