The good news is that more and more coal powered generating facilities are being taken offline as competition from natural gas and renewables make them too expensive to operate. The bad news is the land they are built on is often so battered and bruised from years of pollution it can’t be used for anything else.
The majority of that pollution comes from coal ash stored on the premises. That nasty stuff is what remains after coal is burned. It contains concentrations of mercury, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium, to name but a few. Not only does the property have little commercial value because it is basically a toxic waste dump, but maintaining it after a generating station is decommissioned costs a lot of money. According to Utility Dive, A study by the Tennessee Valley Authority last year found it costs $3.5 million a year to monitor and maintain a 22 acre coal ash lagoon. A 350 acre lagoon can cost as much as $200 million a year.
Now factor in that the Sierra Club recently found that there are 1,424 coal waste disposal sites across the United States, of which nearly 1,100 are coal ash storage ponds. Do the math and you come up with a staggering number and, of course, the way the utility industry is structured in most of the country, utility customers get stuck with the bill. Nevertheless, the utility companies went whining to Congress about the costs of monitoring their pollution as mandated by the hated Obama Administration.
That program cost about $100 million a year for the whole country — about half the cost of maintaining one large coal ash pond. How dare a black man order right-thinking, God-fearing white men to spend money on cleaning up the mess they made? It’s unlawful! Illegal! Unconstitutional! And Scott Pruitt, the Darth Vader of the Trump administration agreed. He is hard at work rolling back that and other “job killing regulations” to please his corporate masters.
But there is a glimmer of hope in the darkness. Two small US utility companies — Holyoke Gas and Electric in Massachusetts and Orlando Utilities Commission Energy Center in Florida — have built solar power plants atop coal ash ponds that have been capped. Repurposing shuttered coal plant sites is “an overlooked opportunity to put these sites back into use and bring jobs and investment to communities that have been hit hard,” says Tom McKittrick, CEO of Forsite Development, a North Carolina company that makes its living finding new and profitable uses for old utility installations. “A lot of utilities tear the plant down, put a fence around the site, and forget about it, but they can turn these liabilities into assets.”
Not every site will be suitable for solar panels, however. Each has to be evaluated on its own merits. Factors like flat land that is not in a flood plain and availability of a substation and high voltage transmission lines in the area are important but community support for the project is critical. “Community support is crucial in any project and, in many places, even if you are building the fountain of youth, there will be complaints,” says Jonathan Cole, CEO of Greenwood Energy, the company that made the Holyoke, Massachusetts solar power plant a reality.
Other utility companies are beginning to take notice. Projects in Pittsburgh and Michigan are under consideration. Repurposing generating stations may not be sexy, but it could become an important piece of making America’s utility grid greener, which will benefit us all. “The key to the project’s viable economics was the falling price of solar modules,” says Jonathan Cole said. “It would not have been financially viable at 2015 panel prices.” All the more reason why the latest tariff increases on solar cells and solar panels is the wrong move at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.