Southwest Virginia Leading Innovative Energy Revolution

By Will Payne

In the fall of 2019, NVTC joined Southwest Virginia’s senior legislators and the Virginia Tobacco Commission in kicking off InvestSWVA, a public-private business attraction and marketing initiative focused on reinventing the region’s economy. NVTC’s leadership understands that, in order for all of Virginia to thrive, we need every region engaged. This partnership is already helping bridge the gap between our two ends of the Commonwealth.

With a blank slate we created a new, disruptive model and asked economic development partners to opt-in. Southwest Virginia has to change the way it pursues new business investment if it expects different outcomes. For us that means operating at the speed of business, leveraging previously untapped relationships and thriving on accountability. Delegates Terry Kilgore and Israel O’Quinn, Senator Todd Pillion and the late Senator Ben Chafin delivered on their word to take a hands-on approach, serving as validators and deal closers.

We developed a vision that spotlights Southwest Virginia’s strategic advantages, namely qualify of life, a dedicated workforce, affordable real estate and availability of significant grant dollars to pair with private investment. We then laid out a roadmap for economic sustainability — a vision for the region that builds on its strengths in which Southwest Virginia can be a home to high-tech companies looking to grow, a location of choice for data centers, a hotbed for energy innovation, a strategic location for advanced manufacturing and a significant player in the craft beverage industry.

We view energy as the single greatest opportunity for the region to redefine itself. Southwest Virginia has a history of driving energy production and manufacturing with its key role in the extractive economy. Metallurgical coal helped build America, while wells drilled over 60 years ago still produce natural gas today. However, the new energy economy is upon us, and we are leading the way.

Our Project Innovation is working with the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority to build on the region’s storied energy legacy while focusing on renewable, clean and zero-carbon projects. We will become the energy innovation capital of the East Coast by repurposing coal industry assets in the development of a first-of-its kind energy lab that will demonstrate cutting-edge technology and assist entrepreneurs in commercializing their IP. Unlike traditional research facilities, our land is the lab, and it affords us a significant competitive advantage.

We recently announced a partnership with Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy to advance the R&D, manufacturing and deployment of energy storage technology. As a start, we teamed up with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and Liberty University on Project Energizer, a new approach to traditional pumped-storage hydro, in which we’ll leverage the region’s typography with a scalable, affordable and proven base-load renewable energy storage solution.

For Project Oasis, we leaned on NVTC and the Data Center Coalition for expertise to validate the strength of Southwest Virginia’s power and broadband infrastructure in the pursuit of new data center investment and jobs. We see our efforts as complementary to Northern Virginia’s data center push, not competitive. Six of our sites meet the criteria for a large 36 MW hyperscale data center, and four additional ones are suitable for a smaller data center of up to 10 MW.

We looked at how Southwest Virginia can stand out by pairing its geography with innovative technology. Two sites can employ geothermal cooling using 51-degree mine water contained in vast pools below the surface of previously mined properties. The annual savings for this system would be over $1 million annually in reduced electric costs and municipal water purchases. It would provide a favorable return on investment and result in net annual savings for the operator. An additional site has a secure, underground space that provides a consistent 55-degree temperature.

Finally, we announced the Commonwealth’s lowest regional property tax rate on data center equipment of $0.24 per $100 of assessed value with a favorable depreciation schedule. This unified approach strengthens the region’s business case and opens up the opportunity for revenue sharing.

Bottom line: Southwest Virginia offers a strategic location for data center investment, and we can offer affordable real estate, robust power and fiber connectivity, significant cost savings, favorable business conditions and renewable energy solutions that satisfy sustainability goals. We appreciate NVTC’s partnership in our energy endeavors and are proud serve as a gateway to growth opportunities in Southwest Virginia.

About the author: Will Payne is Managing Partner of Coalfield Strategies, a one-stop economic development shop driving new business investment to Southwest Virginia. He also serves as Director of InvestSWVA and the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority.