In many parts of the country, outdated and abandoned coal-burning power plants are being given new lives as solar, battery, and other renewable energy projects. This is in part because these facilities have a long-standing asset that has grown in value: they are already connected to the electricity grid.
Building kilometers of high-tension wires and towers from scratch can be expensive, time-consuming, and contentious in order to connect power facilities to clients all over the world. Therefore, by utilizing the unused connections left behind as coal becomes unprofitable to continue burning, solar and other projects are avoiding regulatory problems and possibly accelerating the switch to renewable energy.
In the next three years, at least nine coal-burning plants in Illinois alone are expected to transform into solar farms and battery storage facilities. Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Maryland are also developing similar initiatives. Two coast-located, decommissioned coal reactors in Massachusetts and New Jersey are being converted to link offshore wind farms to local energy networks.
“A silver lining of having all of these dirty power plants is that now, we have reasonably robust transmission lines in those regions,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the environmental advocacy organization Sierra Club. “That’s an enormous asset.”
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that around 600 coal-burning units with a combined generating capacity of about 85 gigawatts have been decommissioned over the last two decades. (Single power plants are allowed to have more than one generator.) The vast bulk of the country’s 266 coal-burning power plants were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s and are nearing the end of their roughly 50-year operating lifespan.
Due to cheaper renewable energy sources and stricter emissions rules, the majority of that retiring capacity won’t be replaced with coal. At the same time, it is difficult for producers of renewable energy to link their projects to the grid. It is expensive and contentious to build new power lines because locals frequently object to transmission lines that might disturb scenic vistas or possibly lower local property values. Furthermore, obtaining regulatory approval for power-line developments can take time.
Renewable energy projects have historically been less expensive to build and maintain than fossil fuel plants. A scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which carries out research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, Joseph Rand, claimed that the obstacle “is not economics anymore. The connectivity and transmission access security is the most difficult aspect.
Old coal plants are a desirable option as locations for renewable energy projects because of this. In addition to being already being hooked into the transmission system, the old plants also contain substations, which help transform the electricity into a supply that can be used in homes and businesses.
That was a significant role in the decision to select Brayton Point Power Station as the grid connection point for a 1,200-megawatt wind farm 37 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, according to Michael Brown, the chief executive officer of the offshore wind developer Mayflower Wind.
The coal-fired plant, which was shut down in 2017, was the biggest in New England at 1,600 megawatts. The Somerset seaside town’s facility will be replaced by an undersea cable plant run by the Italian firm Prysmian Group. Additionally, by utilizing the nearby substation at the Brayton Point interconnection point, the offshore wind project will be connected to the grid.
In one of the most daring initiatives, Vistra Corp., a Texas-based power generation company that also owns a number of power plants in California and Illinois, announced it would spend $550 million to convert at least nine of its coal-burning facilities in Illinois into locations for solar panels and battery storage.
The biggest, a Baldwin, Illinois, factory that will shut down by 2025, will receive 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres of land. 68 megawatts of electricity will be produced by the panels when they are all combined, which, depending on the time of year, could power between 13,600 and 34,000 dwellings. Additionally, a 9-megawatt battery will be added, which will aid in the distribution of electricity during periods of high demand or cloudy weather.
According to Curtis Morgan, chief executive of Vistra, it became evident that the electricity company would have to “leave coal behind,” and the firm was keen to create new zero-emissions projects to replace some of the power from those facilities. He claimed that several of Vistra’s proposed projects have been hampered by the lengthy approval procedure from grid operators, who coordinate and monitor electricity supplies.
According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which looks over the Berkeley campus of the University of California, an increase in requests for wind, solar, and battery storage projects has overwhelmed regulators in recent years. Without accounting for the growing number of projects that are completely abandoning the process, wait times in 2021 had nearly doubled from a decade earlier, to over four years.
We “could attain 80 percent clean energy by 2030,” according to Mr. Rand, the report’s lead author, if every project that is presently awaiting approval is approved and built. However, it would be a miracle if even half of the proposed changes were implemented.
A state law called the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which supports a “fair transition” for areas dependent on coal toward renewable energy, also provided subsidies to three of Vistra’s battery storage projects in Illinois, located at the coal facilities in Havana, Joppa, and Edwards.
In addition, it mandated that all fossil fuel-burning facilities reduce their emissions to zero by 2045. Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it last October, and although most of Illinois’ coal plants were already scheduled to close in the next ten years, this requirement could force them to close.
Two additional battery projects owned by NRG Energy that will be constructed at the coal-burning power plants in Waukegan and Will County are supported by the Coal-to-Solar Energy Storage Grant Program that resulted from the legislation.
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