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Newsletter: Clean energy makeovers for distressed coal plants

This week we saw two new approaches from a group that's been quiet in the post-coal planning conversation: coal plant owners themselves.

Julian Spector
Julian Spector
3 min read
Newsletter: Clean energy makeovers for distressed coal plants

Shutting down coal plants only gets you so far.

It's progress toward cleaning up power-sector emissions, certainly. But closures, absent other action, leave behind vast industrial sites, job losses and financially bruised communities. A "just transition," the goal for many climate activists, requires a strategy for what comes after the coal plant goes dark.

This week we saw two new approaches from a group that's been surprisingly quiet in the post-coal planning conversation: coal plant owners themselves.

  1. A 1950s-era coal plant near Baltimore, Maryland is switching to battery power.
  2. Warren Buffett's utility PacifiCorp is working with Bill Gates–funded TerraPower to test a new sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor at a coal plant that's closing in Wyoming.

Both plans would utilize the existing infrastructure to create cleaner power. Let's start with the one that's definitely happening.

A shift from coal in the mid-Atlantic

Talen Energy, a privately held company that owns power plants across the mid-Atlantic, is building a battery at the site of a coal generator it recently shut down near Baltimore. The first phase of the battery should be running within a year, charging and delivering power as the market demands.

The company is excited about this project as a test for its entire fleet:

“This is the first of hopefully many unit transitions from coal to lower-carbon sources and battery,” said Cole Muller, who oversees Talen's fossil-powered fleet in the territory of regional transmission organization PJM. “It’s really about decarbonizing, ...investing in the communities and continuing to provide opportunities for our people.”

I've reported on batteries for the last five years, but this is the first time I've talked to anyone building them at a coal plant. (A project in Australia aims to do this too, but a little further in the future).

Talen and battery developer Key Capture Energy told me that coal sites have distinct advantages for new battery construction:

  • These legacy plants control a lot of land, which leaves plenty of room to install things.
  • The batteries can use the coal plant's grid hookup, which simplifies permitting and project costs.

Making this switch serves environmental justice, because it replaces a polluting facility with batteries, which emit no air pollution. And it keeps investment flowing to the surrounding community.

We still don't know:

  • What kind of long-term jobs and investment a battery plant can sustain. Part of the beauty of this technology is it can operate with minimal labor once it's installed.
  • How well batteries replace the operations of coal plants. Talen wants to build a battery that can export just as much power as the old coal plant, but it will need to stop and recharge, whereas coal plants can run continuously. On the other hand, batteries are faster and more nimble, which could prove valuable.

Billionaires for nuclear experimentation

The site-specific benefits of existing coal sites could apply to nuclear as well.

The Gates/Buffett Wyoming plan would put a 345-megawatt demonstration reactor at the former coal plant. That's small compared to conventional nuclear generators, but hefty for a test facility.

TerraPower wants to build plants within the decade, but it faces unenviable obstacles, such as:

  • It uses a type of nuclear fuel (high-assay low-enriched uranium or HALEU) that is not commercially available today.
  • U.S. nuclear regulations are geared toward light water reactors. TerraPower's design is fundamentally different, which promises a lengthy and difficult vetting process with the government.

Nuclear plants would entail much more investment and job opportunities in former coal power hubs. And 24/7 carbon-free power is nice to have when contemplating a grid with little or no fossil fuel consumption.

It's way too soon for coal communities to count on this backup plan. At least when billionaires bet on exotic nuclear technologies, it's money they can afford to lose.

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Julian Spector

Julian reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.