Brownfields to greenfields: repurposing coal mines worldwide into renewable centers

For decades, energy transition experts called for transforming post-mined lands into  renewable energy hubs. To bolster their arguments, as part of their “Sunshine for Mines” project, a decade ago the pioneering Rocky Mountain Institute began tracking the few “lighthouse” projects that then existed. At the time, renewable capacity on mine sites stood at just over 600 megawatts worldwide. But by the end of 2019, globally almost 4.9 GW of renewable capacity had been installed or was in the pipeline. And since then, propelled even further by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global response to it, the sheer amount of these second-life projects is increasing exponentially — with Europe and the United States leading the world into a greener post-coal age. In this series, lead author and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum shines his light on several model solar-centric coal transitions now being developed worldwide. Read part 2, part 3 and part 4 of this series.

Photovoltaic farm in Dwory, Poland (Credits: Synthossa, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Unlocking the coal to solar potential

Since the dawn of the industrial age, hundreds of thousands of hectares of land have been mined out.

One method gaining traction to help re-vitalize these scarred landscapes is to combine the installation of solar voltaic systems with certain agricultural practices. Installing such agro-photovoltaics systems on post-mined lands is gaining traction in Poland, Germany and the United Kingdom.

In 2022, two solar farms with a combined 49.9 MW capacity were approved for construction on the sites of former open-cast and underground mines in the UK. While solar panels will also be erected on farm buildings, across the landscapes, new panels are being erected so that sheep can be grazed among them.

This is one of many such discussed trends in the Green Tank’s new “Just Transition in Practice” report that highlights the increasing number of renewable energy conversion and repurposing projects happening at former coal facilities and on post-mined lands.

Though taking front and center in this Greek NGO’s report is the construction of the new 204 MW Kozani PV complex adjacent to former lignite mine lands in Greece – something we covered in a previous blog.

However, since publication, even more investment decisions have been taken towards the goal of producing some 10GW of solar, much of it in the mining region of Kozani, by 2030, essentially swapping out coal generation for clean solar production.

In October 2022, Greek-state owned PPC Renewables signed a deal with Germany’s RWE to develop another 2 GW of coal-mine solar capacity as well.

This tracks with trends in Bosnia where utility EBiH now plans to deploy 50 MW of solar capacity across its coal waste sites, with the first two projects set to be built on a coal dump in the municipality of Gračanica.

Additionally, in the Balkan nation of North Macedonia, its state-owned electricity company ESM has recently started test operations of a 10 MW photovoltaic plant built on top of an old coal mine in the Oslomej. Going forward, with the support of various European development banks, the nation plans to install an additional 100 MW of solar power capacity at the location — replacing the Oslomej coal-fired thermal power plant adjacent to the mine.

Poland’s coal to solar conversion staggers forward

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in June 2022, renewable energy sources covered 67% of Poland’s power demand: a record share for the EU’s most coal-dependent nation, which represented 70.8% of the country’s electricity production in 2021.

But Poland has been slowly shifting towards lower-emission sources and with coal prices up 300% since 2021, there’s more pressure than ever to shift to renewables.

In November 2022, the Energa Green Development, a subsidiary of the giant ORLEN petroleum refining and distributing group, obtained permission to start construction of the planned 65 MW Mitra PV farm on reclaimed areas of ​​the Adamów lignite opencast mine beginning in the first quarter of 2023.

As it’s built, it will join two smaller PV arrays there as well as a 31 MW wind farm already in operation on the former mine site. Several estimates suggest the region has a potential capacity of at least 160 MW.

Though Mitra is the largest photovoltaic project implemented by ORLEN so far, it’s just the next step in achieving an envisioned company-wide 2.5 GW renewable energy portfolio by 2030.

Similarly, electricity provider Zespół Elektrowni Pątnów-Adamów-Konin or ZePak is also intending to build a 30 MW solar power plant for the Bogdanka coal mine near Łęczna as well as a 70 MW solar park within the site of the extensive Adamów brown coal mine.

“Turek Poviat and Brudzew – a few years ago the area of a lignite mine, today the production of green electricity – is a real symbol of the Polish energy transformation…the reclaimed area has regained its value in use and is an example of how to implement the energy transformation in Poland, including the creation of new jobs for people leaving the mining industry,” said ZePak’s president, Piotr Woźny.

Current plans see ZePak installing some 630MW of PV by 2030 as well.

Inching away from Belachatow

Though the majority of the 10 most polluting power plants in Europe are in Germany, the perennial “winner” in such worst of contests is the mammoth Belchatow plant in Poland.

Owned by Poland’s second-largest coal power provider, PGE, the company is starting to take small steps to converting part of the plant and its surrounding mine lands into solar fields.

To help it get there, Bloomberg New Energy Futures (BNEF) has recently outlined a potential transition plan for it that sees some 5 GW of solar and 5.7 GW of wind replacing 80% of Belchatow’s lignite generation capacity by 2036, much of which would be installed on reclaimed mine land or on the power plant’s waste landfill.

In addition to the construction of photovoltaic farms near the Bełachatów energy complex, they are planning the construction of PV installations with a capacity of 125 MW on the premises of the Dolna Odra Power Plant. And though the national government has not really weighed in, PGE’s stated objective is to reach 2.5 GW of power from solar energy by 2030.

In part two of this series, we’ll look at Germany, far and away the leader in coal to solar conversions, where developers recently broke ground on a 650 MW solar array being constructed on the grounds of a former lignite mine.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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