In a twist, old coal-fired power plants help provide renewable energy. Here’s how.


Across the country, aging and outdated coal-fired power plants are given new life as solar, battery and other renewable energy projects, in part because they have a decades-old feature that has become increasingly more valuable: they are already connected to the electricity grid.

The miles of high-voltage cables and pylons often needed to connect power plants to distant customers can be expensive, time-consuming and controversial to build from scratch. Thus, solar and other projects avoid regulatory hassles and potentially accelerate the transition to renewable energy, by plugging into unused connections left behind as coal becomes uneconomical to keep burning.

In Illinois alone, at least nine coal-fired power plants are on track to become solar farms and battery storage facilities over the next three years. Similar projects are taking shape in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Maryland. In Massachusetts and New Jersey, two former coal-fired power plants along the coast are being repurposed to connect offshore wind turbines to regional power grids.

“A good thing about having all these dirty power plants is that now we have pretty robust transmission lines in these places,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, an advocacy group for the ‘environment. “It’s a huge asset.”

Over the past two decades, more than 600 coal-fired generators totaling about 85 gigawatts of generating capacity have been retired, according to US Energy Information Administration. (Individual power plants may have more than one generator.) The majority of the country’s remaining 266 coal-fired power plants were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are nearing the end of their operational life of about 50 year.

Most of this retired capacity will not be replaced by coal, as the industry is crowded out by cheaper renewables and tighter emissions regulations. At the same time, renewable energy producers face obstacles in connecting their projects to the grid. Building new power lines is expensive and controversial because neighbors often object to transmission lines that can disrupt scenic views or potentially reduce nearby property values. Additionally, getting power line projects approved by regulators can be time consuming.

Building and operating renewable energy projects has long been cheaper than fossil fuel power plants. The hurdle “is no longer the economy,” said Joseph Rand, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who conducts research for the US Department of Energy. “The most difficult thing is to secure interconnection and access to transport.”

This makes old coal-fired power plants an attractive option as sites for renewable energy projects. Not only are older power stations already hardwired into the transmission grid, they also have substations, which help convert electricity into power suitable for use in homes and businesses.

This was a key factor in choosing the Brayton Point Power Plant as the grid connection point for a 1,200 megawatt wind farm 37 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, said Michael Brown, managing director of the wind developer offshore Mayflower Wind.

At 1,600 megawatts, the coal-fired power station was the largest in New England when it retired in 2017. The facility itself, located in the riverside town of Somerset, will be replaced by a cable plant submarines belonging to the Italian company Prysmian Group. . And the offshore wind project will connect to the grid at the Brayton Point interconnection point, using the existing substation there.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, Vistra Corp., a Texas-based power generation company that also owns a variety of power plants in California and Illinois, said it would spend $550 million to transform at least nine of its coal-fired facilities in Illinois in sites for solar panels and battery storage.

The largest, a factory in Baldwin, Illinois, which is due to retire by 2025, will receive 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres of land. Together, the panels will generate 68 megawatts of electricity, enough to power between 13,600 and 34,000 homes, depending on the time of year. It will also get a battery that can store up to 9 megawatts, which will help distribute power when demand peaks or the sun isn’t shining.

Vistra chief executive Curtis Morgan said it had become clear the power company should “leave coal behind” and was eager to build new zero-emissions projects to replace some of the electricity from these plants. However, he said, the slow process of getting approval from grid operators, who coordinate and monitor electricity supply, has been a stumbling block for a number of Vistra’s proposed projects.

A surge in proposals for wind, solar and battery storage projects has overwhelmed regulators in recent years, according to an analysis by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which overlooks the University of California’s Berkeley campus. By 2021, wait times had nearly doubled from a decade earlier, to nearly four years, and that doesn’t include the growing number of projects opting out of the process entirely.

If every project currently awaiting approval is built, “we could achieve 80% clean energy by 2030,” said Rand, the report’s lead author. “But we would be lucky if even a quarter of what is proposed is actually achieved.”

Three of Vistra’s battery storage projects in Illinois – at coal-fired plants in Havana, Joppa and Edwards – have also received an infusion of grants from a state law, the Climate Act. and employment equity, aimed at supporting a “just transition” for those dependent on coal. communities towards renewable energies. It was signed by Governor JB Pritzker last fall and also required all fossil fuel power plants to reduce their emissions to zero by 2045, which could lead to their closure, although most coal-fired power plants in the Illinois are already close to closing. down in a decade.

The Coal-Solar Energy Storage Grant Program that emerged from the legislation also backs two other battery projects, owned by NRG Energy, to be built at coal-fired power plants in Waukegan and Will County.

The benefit of building renewable energy projects on old coal plants is two-fold, said Sylvia Garcia, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which oversees the coal-solar program. First, projects benefit from the ease of reusing an existing network connection. Second, it’s an effort to “try to reinvest in the communities that lost those coal plants” in the first place, she said.

While new projects will temporarily create construction jobs, operating a solar power plant or battery installation typically does not require as many employees. The Baldwin plant previously employed about 105 full-time workers. And while Vistra has yet to finalize site-by-site numbers, the combined nine Illinois projects will create 29 full-time jobs per year, company communications director Meranda Cohn said in an e -mail.

Coal-fired power plants are also usually located on a large parcel of land, and redevelopment of these sites into renewable energy projects is a way to put something productive on a property that might otherwise sit unused.

“It really turns a very negative resource into a more positive resource for the community,” said Jeff Bishop, general manager of Key Capture Energy, which plans to locate a 20-megawatt battery storage project at a coal-fired power plant in the retired near Baltimore, Maryland. .

Elsewhere in Holyoke, Mass., the removal of Mount Tom Station, a coal-fired plant that had operated for more than five decades, presented a number of opportunities, said Julie Vitek, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the power producer. electricity ENGIE North America. . After meetings with government officials, environmental groups and residents, a solar farm emerged as the best way to “bring new life to the industrial lands of Mount Tom”, she said.

Today, the property is home to some 17,000 solar panels and a small battery installation that form a community solar project run by Holyoke Gas & Electric, a city-owned utility that gives customers the option of choosing to receive power. project solar energy. The panels produce about 6 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,800 homes.

It’s not just solar, battery and wind power developers eyeing old coal-fired power plants for their infrastructure. TerraPower, a nuclear energy company founded by Bill Gates, is siting an advanced 345 megawatt nuclear reactor next to a retired coal-fired power plant in Kemmerer, Wyo. The location will not only allow the reactor to take advantage of the existing grid connection, but also utilize the coal-fired plant’s cooling system, said Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower.

“In a way, it would be a shame not to use these coal-fired plants,” Mr. Levesque said.

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