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Old coal plants are being resurrected as clean energy hubs

An abandoned coal plant in Pennsylvania
Image Credit: Flickr/R'lyeh Imaging

Across the country, aging and defunct coal-burning power plants are being born again as renewable energy plants because of a valuable decades old feature: power grid wiring.

Over the last two decades, more than 600 coal-burning generators have entered retirement according to the U.S. Energy Information Association. The majority of the remaining 266 remaining coal-burning power plants in the country are nearing retirement age.

Many of them, which were built in the 1970s and 1980s are reaching the end of their 50-year operational lifetime. However, instead of tapping into a 401K, these old plants are tapping into sustainable energy, with new lives as solar, battery, wind and other clean energy power projects, according to The New York Times.

Getting projects connected to the grid is one of the biggest obstacles renewable energy producers face. Building new power lines can be costly and controversial. Residents of areas may oppose the lines’ fracture in the scenery or potential reduction of property values. Additionally, getting power-line projects approved by regulators can be time consuming.

Renewable energy projects have long been cheaper than emission-high fossil fuels plants. As the industry is poised to get pinched out by renewables by 2035, and fossil fuels become more and more pressured by toughening regulations, converting old plants seems like an obvious answer.

Currently, in Illinois alone, at least nine coal-burning plants are on set to become solar farms and battery storage facilities within the next three years. Similar projects are eclipsing across the country from Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado to North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Maryland.

The change is blowing in on the east coast: Two retired coal plants in New Jersey and Massachusetts are being repurposed to connect offshore wind turbines to respective regional electrical grids.

“A silver lining of having had all of these dirty power plants is that now, we have fairly robust transmission lines in those places” Jack Darin told The Times Darin is the director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group. “That’s a huge asset.”

Coal plants are an attractive option as sites for renewable energy projects, not only for their prior wiring into the transmission system, but also for their substations, infrastructure necessary to convert electricity to a supply that’s suitable for use in homes and businesses.

One company that took note of this is Mayflower Wind, a New England offshore wind developer. Michael Brown, the company’s chief executive officer said this thinking was behind their decision to choose Brayton Point Power Station as a grid connection point for Mayflower’s 1,200-megawatt wind farm, located 37 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. When the coal-firing plant retired in 2017, it was the biggest plant in New England. Now it connects offshore wind to the grid.

Another company undergoing these ambitious renovation efforts include Texas-based Vistra Corp., a power generation company turning various power plants in California and Illinois into sites for solar panels and battery storage. Its largest venture, a plant in Baldwin, Illinois, is set to retire by 2025.

The plant will house 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres of land, providing 68 megawatts of power, enough to supply between 13,600 and 34,000 homes, depending on the time of year. The plant will also get a nine megawatt battery, to serve as standby power, and distribute electricity on cloudier days.

It was clear the company needed to “leave coal behind,” Vistra chief executive Curtis Morgan told The Times.

However, getting approval from grid operators has been slow, Vistra said. According to an analysis from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the surge in proposals for wind, solar and battery storage projects has overwhelmed regulators in recent years.

Wait times have doubled since 2021, but every project waiting for approval got the green light, we could hit 80 percent clean energy by 2030, the paper’s lead author said. However, he noted that the chances are slim: “we’d be lucky if even a quarter of what’s proposed actually gets completed,” Rand said.

“Just transition” grants have sought to make the process smoother. Enacted by Illinois Governor J.B. Last fall, the Coal-to-Solar Energy Storage Grant Program under the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act aimed to help the state fully transition to clean energy sources. Three of Vistra’s battery storage projects in Illinois have benefited from the program.

The advantages are two-fold, explained Sylvia Garcia, the director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Firstly, companies receive the ease of building on existing plants, taking advantage of sites that would otherwise likely go unused. Secondly, the program is an effort toward “trying to reinvest in the communities that have lost those coal plants” in the first place.

“It’s really shifting a very negative resource into one that is more positive for the community,” said Jeff Bishop, chief executive of Key Capture Energy, a New York supplier planning to locate a 20-megawatt battery storage project at a retired coal plant near Baltimore.

Coal-plant potential doesn’t end at solar, wind, and battery. Some also have the opportunity to reincarnate as nuclear. TerraPower, a Bill Gates-founded nuclear venture, has been eyeing a retired coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. The company plans to locate its 345-megawatt advanced nuclear reactor adjacent to the plant making use of its grid connection and cooling system. Chris Levesque, the TerraPower president and chief executive, says it’d be “a real shame” to not make use of the existing plant.

Wyoming hopes that the plant will help ease the transition from coal, but researchers worry about the potential environmental injustices posed by the plant. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, a University of Wyoming research team has been studying the historical environmental challenges caused by plants in the region.

“So, nuclear energy in particular, has historically presented a range of social, environmental and ethical challenges that also warrant exploration, around public perception, safety, trust, and industry and government responsibility for waste and accidents,” Lead researcher Rachael Budowle told Wyoming Public Media.

The community still deals with dangerously high levels of uranium due to a uranium mill that operated from 1958 to 1963. Additionally, Budowle worries about the job loss that will occur as several coal plants are decommissioned. While projects like this will create construction jobs, the boom is temporary, as solar and battery facilities for example do not require as many employees as coal plants.

“There really are real implications for Wyoming communities that have been hit hard due to the economic crisis and energy transition that has occurred over the past couple of years,” she said. “We're trying to take this energy ethics approach, and really hear this from the ground up, So trying not to assume things beyond what we know in past environmental injustices due to the nuclear fuel cycle.”

In its second year of research, Budowle and her team will interview industry stakeholders and provide recommendations to Wyoming and TerraPower. This is just one way in which companies hoping to capitalize on retiring coal-firing plants must consider the needs of the communities they will exist in and serve in order to ensure a truly “just transition.”

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