A new Department of Energy initiative could help revitalize mining communities’ economies and utilize underdeveloped lands already mined by extractive operations.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act earmarked $500 million that will be made available to fund up to five clean energy projects on mining lands- operating and closed. The Department of Energy is formulating parameters for these projects and are expected to have an open request for proposals in 2023.
Robin Bullock is an associate professor of environmental engineering and director of Montana Tech’s Center of Environmental Remediation and Assessment. She shared her expertise as a past project manager in mine closure with the Department of Energy so that they might gather information so they can formulate the parameters for the requests for project proposals. She spoke as an invited panelist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in October in Golden, Colorado, about the mining life cycle, what happens when mines are closed or abandoned, and how it might be possible to successfully redevelop former mining sites for renewable energy production. Much of her presentation highlighted work on mining and environmental remediation in Butte.
“I believe this type of redevelopment is viable,” Bullock said of the Department of Energy’s plans to fund the projects, up to two of which will be solar. “They want a diverse energy mix, including opportunities such as geothermal, hydro, energy storage, and direct air capture.”
Bullock believes Montana Tech is a potential partner for the project, not only because of its identity as a mining town and its research into hard rock and coal mining operations in Montana and elsewhere, but also because of its ties to workforce development. The university offers associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs, and career training certifications. It also stewards interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program. Given the topical area, it is notable that Montana Tech is one of only 14 universities in the U.S. that offers degrees in mining engineering, and is the sole university that offers a mine education training center on its campus.
“We prepare students for future careers- where they can hit the ground running through real-world education and innovation,” Bullock said. “Butte-Silver Bow would make a good location to pursue and advance renewable energy generation on mine complexes.”
Montana Tech Vice Chancellor for Research Dr. Angela Lueking believes the initiative could hold potential for the university and Butte.
“There are tremendous opportunities to develop renewable energy potential on abandoned mine lands, through this federal program,” Lueking said. “Being adjacent to abandoned mine lands, and in close proximity to a working mine, Montana Tech is well poised to provide both needed technical expertise as well as develop the trades and professional workforce needed to deploy these projects. Meeting the needs of a Disadvantaged Community (DAC), Butte, Montana, provides additional opportunities to meet the specifications in the proposed solicitation.”
Past research might help provide the foundation. From 2010-2015, researchers at Montana Tech ran a $1 million, Department of Energy-funded project that investigated the possibility that water located in the abandoned mining shafts beneath Butte might be used for geothermal energy.
“With a past DOE-sponsored geothermal demonstration project located on campus, combined with close proximity to mineral resources and wastes that may be used for carbon capture via extreme weathering, Montana Tech is poised to leverage both natural resources and past environmental scars to develop the technology and workforce for the clean energy revolution,” Lueking said.
At the conference in Golden, stakeholders in attendance included natural resource companies that have operations in Montana.
The Department of Energy will hold a final virtual workshop on Oct. 25-26 prior to requesting project proposals. Montana Tech representatives and other Butte stakeholders are planning to attend. Bullock will be speaking again to further promote the value of this opportunity for Butte and other mining locations.