Old source, renewable power
Coal-burning plants provide value as they are repurposed for cleaner energy projects
Across the country, aging and defunct coal-burning power plants are getting new lives as solar, battery and other renewable energy projects, partly because they have a decades-old feature that has become increasingly valuable: They are already wired into the power grid.
The miles of high-tension wires and towers often needed to connect power plants to customers far and wide can be costly, time-consuming and controversial to build from scratch. So solar and other projects are avoiding regulatory hassles and potentially speeding up the transition to renewable energy by plugging into the unused connections left behind as coal becomes uneconomical to keep burning.
In Illinois, at least nine coal-burning plants are on track to become solar farms and battery storage facilities in the next three years. Similar projects are taking shape in Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico and North Dakota.
In Massachusetts and New Jersey, two retired coal plants along the coast are being repurposed to connect offshore wind turbines to the 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,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club., an environmental advocacy group. “That’s a huge asset.”
Over the past two decades, more than 600 coal-burning generators totaling about 85 gigawatts of generating capacity have retired, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (Individual power plants can have more than one generator.) A majority of the 266 remaining coal-burning power plants in the country were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are nearing the end of their approximately 50-year operational lifetime.
Most of that retired capacity will not be replaced with coal, as the industry gets squeezed out by cheaper renewable energy and tougher emissions regulations. At the same time, renewable energy producers are facing obstacles getting their projects connected to the grid.
Building new power lines is costly and controversial, as neighbors often oppose transmission lines that can disturb scenic vistas or potentially reduce property values nearby. In addition, getting such projects approved by regulators can be timeconsuming.
Building and operating renewable energy projects has long been cheaper than fossil fuel plants. The barrier “is not economics anymore,” said Joseph Rand, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which conducts research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy. “The hardest part is securing the interconnection and transmission access.”
This makes old coal plants an attractive option as sites for renewable energy projects. Not only are the old plants already wired into the transmission system, they
also have substations, which help convert electricity to a supply that is suitable for use in homes and businesses.
Coal plants also typically sit on a sizable parcel of land, and redeveloping those sites into renewable energy projects is a way to put something productive on a piece of property that might otherwise go unused.
“It’s really shifting a very negative resource into one that is more positive for the community,” said Jeff Bishop, CEO of Key Capture Energy, which plans to locate a 20-megawatt battery storage project at a retired coal plant near Baltimore.