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Supreme Court Decision Unlikely to Stall the Shift Away from Coal Plants

As market forces chip away at the coal industry, many plants are being repurposed as data centers, museums, and mixed-use neighborhoods.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision today to invalidate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to restrict mercury and other pollutants from existing power plants, the retirement of aging coal plants continues to accelerate. According to a recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, we are entering “the largest wave of coal retirements in U.S. history,” with 23 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity expected to close this year alone and a total of 50 gigawatts by 2020.

Google’s $600 million redevelopment of the Widows Creek plant, in Alabama, could be a model for the reuse of retired coal plants.

Federal regulation aside, the decline of coal-fired power is being driven by market forces: more than 90 percent of these plants are older than 20 years; many are much older. The shale gas revolution has made burning natural gas, which is a far cleaner source of heat for electricity than coal, at least as economical as coal in many cases. Even if the federal government doesn’t force utilities to move away from coal, the market, and public pressure from ratepayers, is driving them toward cleaner sources of energy.

That raises a perplexing question: what are we going to do with all those former coal plants?

Coal plants tend to be dirty, located in out-of-the-way spots (nobody wants to live next to a coal-fired power plant), and full of derelict machinery that must be hauled off. The disused buildings must be razed. On the other hand, they’re by definition well-served by the power grid, often located on river banks, and tend to be in regions eager for new economic development.

All of those apply to Widows Creek, in northern Alabama, a coal plant owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority that was shut down as part of the TVA’s sweeping 2011 clean-air agreement with the EPA and environmental organizations. This week Google announced it will turn the former coal plant into a data center powered by 100 percent renewable energy. If all works out, this could turn into a rare unalloyed victory in the transition away from fossil fuels: Google gets a ready-zoned brownfield site with ample existing infrastructure; the surrounding communities get a new economic boost; the climate gets a reduction of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year.

As James Surowiecki points out in the latest issue of MIT Technology Review, though, the “leave it to Google” strategy is not going to work everywhere. States, cities, and rural communities across the country are going to be faced with decommissioning, rehabilitating, and repurposing or demolishing hundreds of old coal plants in the next couple of decades. Utilities don’t have the capital to carry out these huge teardowns on their own. Not all of them are going to be turned into clean, high-tech data centers.

Fortunately, there are already some encouraging examples of creatively repurposed coal plants.

Perhaps the most well-known is the Seaholm project, in Austin, Texas. Located on the shore of Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin, the 100-megawatt Seaholm Power Plant was shut down in 1996. Beginning in the mid-2000s the city redeveloped the site as a $100 million retail, office, and residential complex centered around the Art Deco plant building. Developer Southwest Strategies Group welcomed the first major tenant for the space, medical software provider Athenahealth, in February.

Last year the Sacramento City Council approved funding for the Powerhouse Science Center, a new museum and sci/tech education complex on the site of the old Station B, a Pacific Gas & Electric plant that was built in 1912. The $89 million project, which will include an exhibition space, a planetarium, an environmental laboratory, and an outdoor café along the Sacramento River, is expected to break ground later this year.

One of the most ambitious coal-plant repurposing projects will be Potomac River Green, on the site of the Potomac River Generating Station south of Alexandria, Virginia, which was shut down in 2012 after years of protests and legal wrangling with environmentalists. Headed by the American Clean Skies Foundation, the $450 million redevelopment will result in a sustainable mixed-used neighborhood with apartments, shopping, recreational facilities, a hotel, and renewable power generation on-site.

It will “transform one of Alexandria’s dirtiest industrial sites into a thriving and sustainable 21st century neighborhood,” the developers state, and will “create hundreds of jobs, add over 500 new homes along the waterfront, generate millions of dollars in new tax revenues, and open public access to a long stretch of riverfront property that has been closed off since the 1930s.”

That’s pretty much the ideal outcome as far as reusing old coal plants goes. Not all redevelopments will be so successful; some will undoubtedly become white elephants, at huge costs to taxpayers. And some coal plants will simply be left to rust away where they stand, decaying monuments to the fossil fuel era.

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