Old Coal Plants Get New Life as Renewable Hubs

August 14, 2022

I’ve posted recently about Peabody Coal’s pivot to turn degraded mine lands into solar fields.
There’s more. Renewable energy heals.

Above, I spoke to Peter Schubert of Indiana University about efforts to repurpose old Indiana coal mines for energy storage.

New York Times:

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 alone, 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 Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Maryland. 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 power-line projects approved by regulators can be time consuming.

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’s suitable for use in homes and businesses.

That was a key factor in choosing Brayton Point Power Station as a grid connection point for a 1,200-megawatt wind farm 37 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, said Michael Brown, chief executive officer of the offshore wind developer Mayflower Wind.

At 1,600 megawatts, the coal-fired plant was the largest one in New England when it retired in 2017. The facility itself, located in the waterfront town of Somerset, will be replaced by an undersea-cable factory owned by the Italian company Prysmian Group. And the offshore wind project will connect to the grid at the Brayton Point interconnection point, making use of 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 turn at least nine of its coal-burning facilities in Illinois into sites for solar panels and battery storage.

The largest, a plant in Baldwin, Ill., that’s set to retire by 2025, will get 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres of land. Together, the panels will generate 68 megawatts of power, enough to supply somewhere between 13,600 and 34,000 homes, depending on the time of year. It will also get a 9-megawatt battery, which will help distribute electricity when demand peaks or the sun isn’t shining.

A surge in proposals for wind, solar and battery storage projects has overwhelmed regulators in recent years, according to an analysis from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which overlooks the University of California’s Berkeley campus. In 2021, wait times had almost doubled from a decade before, to nearly four years, and that does not include the increasing number of projects that are withdrawing from the process entirely.

If every project currently waiting for approval gets built, “we could hit 80 percent clean energy by 2030,” said Mr. Rand, the lead author of the report. “But we’d be lucky if even a quarter of what’s proposed actually gets completed.”

Three of Vistra’s battery storage projects in Illinois — at the Havana, Joppa and Edwards coal plants — also benefited from an infusion of grants from a state law, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, aimed at supporting a “just transition” for coal-dependent communities toward renewable energy. It was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker last fall, and also required all fossil-fuel-burning plants to cut their emissions to zero by 2045, which could lead to their closure, though most of the coal plants in Illinois were already poised to shut down within a decade.


3 Responses to “Old Coal Plants Get New Life as Renewable Hubs”

  1. John Oneill Says:

    ‘The largest, a plant in Baldwin, Ill., that’s set to retire by 2025, will get 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres of land. Together, the panels will generate 68 megawatts of power…’
    The Baldwin Energy Station generated 1,894 megawatts, so 500 acres and 68 MW of part-time power is just a sop for the greenies. An 1,100 MW gas-fired station is being commissioned in 2022, in SW Michigan. That’s not all. ‘Bradford said the PJM and MISO regions, along with the U.S. Southeast, are the most-active new-build regions with 15.8 GW, 3.8 GW, and 6.2 GW (of gas turbine power plants), respectively, planned to come online over the next few years.’ That’s Gigawatts, not megawatts. As well as retiring coal plants, they will replace the output of Palisades nuclear plant, 800 MW of CO2- and methane-free power, closed this year despite the last minute efforts of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer to save it. Her ‘100% economy-wide carbon neutrality’ plan, announced just months beforehand, had no mention of nuclear. https://www.powermag.com/more-than-32-gw-of-new-gas-fired-power-plants-in-u-s-pipeline/
    John O’Neill

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The Palisades plant (took three years to build and operated at full power in 1973) was licensed to run until 2031.

      Entergy had made a decision to close the plant in October 2018. A decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) influenced the company’s decision. Consumers Energy attempted to buy its way out of a power purchase agreement it has with Entergy and the plant. The MPSC did not approve Consumer Energy’s full request of $172 million, so Entergy decided to keep the plant open three years longer than planned. On April 20, 2022, just weeks before the facility was scheduled to close, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer requested federal funding to keep the facility open.

      Entergy closed the Palisades plant in May 2022 and its sale to Holtec International was completed in June 2022.

      So they closed the plant 11 days early due to a “faulty control rod” and have a half-billion dollar trust fund to decommission.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Looks like financial problems made Entergy want to shut it down before its license expired:
      From https://www.michigan.gov/mpsc/-/media/Project/Websites/mpsc/regulatory/reports/annual-utility-elec/2018/Consumers_Energy_Company_P521_reduced.pdf
      [PPA = Power Purchase Agreement]

      Palisades Financing
      In 2007, Consumers sold Palisades to Entergy and entered into a 15-year PPA to purchase virtually all of the capacity and energy produced by Palisades, up to the annual average capacity of 798 MW. Consumers accounted for this transaction as a financing because of its continuing involvement with Palisades through security provided to Entergy for the PPA obligation and other arrangements. Palisades has therefore remained on Consumers’ consolidated balance sheets and Consumers has continued to depreciate it. At the time of the sale, Consumers recorded the sales proceeds as a financing obligation, and has subsequently recorded a portion of the payments under the PP A as interest expense and as a reduction of the financing obligation. Total amortization and interest charges under the financing were $16 million for the year ended December 31, 2018, $17 million for the year ended December 31, 2017, and $17 million for the year ended December 31, 2016. At December 31, 2018, the Palisades asset and financing obligation both had a balance of $42 million.

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