Life after death for the coal industry

AAround the world, countries are exploring ways to reallocate their coal infrastructure, as many governments pledge to stop fossil fuel production within a decade or two. While the UK is looking at geothermal energy as a potential answer, the US is converting old coal-fired power stations into solar farms and nuclear power sites, and South Africa is using infrastructure for centers community and sports. In Australia, while the government is not expected to turn its back on coal anytime soon, the world’s largest coal port has announced that it will be powered entirely by renewable energy.

In the United States, several coal regions are currently seeking to reuse disused or soon-to-be-abandoned infrastructure; and how to revitalize cities that previously depended on jobs and coal revenues. While some areas are opting to redevelop coal-fired facilities for use as student unions and recreation centers, others are welcoming renewable energy companies, hoping they will bring new jobs with their operations.

In Wisconsin, the Blackhawk Power Plant is now used as a restaurant, with its iconic chimneys serving as a beacon to greet customers. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Power House has become an office space. The Shamokin Dam in Pennsylvania is used as an industrial space for the cultivation of medical marijuana.

There are also several examples of coal-fired power plants and associated materials being used for renewable or low-carbon energy generation. For example, Bill Gates’ Terrapower LLC plans to develop new nuclear power plants on former coal sites in Wyoming. Chris Levesque, CEO of Terrapower Explain using existing energy sites, “you already have this transmission connection ready.” He pointed out that these sites also have hydraulic infrastructure and a skilled workforce that can be retrained.

In Massachusetts, the Mount Tom Solar Farm was established on a former coal-fired power plant site. Since it was already grid-connected, it was easy for the solar company to take over the site and continue to use much of the infrastructure. Since 2018, the site has housed a 5.8 megawatt photovoltaic installation with battery storage, supporting the state’s renewable energy goals.

Demolition of coal-fired facilities can not only be expensive, but potentially harmful to the environment. It also has a ripple effect on the territories due to job losses. Repurposing these facilities, however, can help regions recycle infrastructure and create new jobs.

In 2021, South Africa secured $8.5 billion from Britain, France, Germany, the United States and the European Union to reallocate many of its coal-fired power plants . Jesse Burton, energy policy researcher at the University of Cape Town, explained the financing, “This is a major test of whether rich countries can help developing countries engage in a just transition away from coal.”

Currently, South Africa depends on coal for 87% of its electricity generation, with 120,000 workers employed directly in the coal industry. While the world is 15and biggest emitter of CO2, it will need to ramp up its renewable energy business as well as curb its coal production if the country hopes to meet its 2030 carbon reduction targets.

Elsewhere in the UK, there are plans to convert flooded coal mines in the north of the country into geothermal power plants. Plans for a pilot project have been approved by South Tyneside Council in 2021 to test the potential of a geothermal energy project at the old Hebburn Colliery, which closed in 1932.

And while Australia isn’t planning on ditching coal anytime soon, with India and China continuing to rely heavily on its coal exports, it is considering switching to renewables for parts of its operations.

The Port of Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port, announced last week that it will now be fully powered by renewable energy. The port, which exports 165Mt of coal a year, aims to decarbonize by 2040 by increasing the proportion of non-coal activities to account for half of its revenues by 2030. It has partnered to Iberdrola, operator of the Bodangora wind farm in New South Wales to supply the port with electricity. Additionally, it has converted 97% of its vehicles to electric vehicles.

In Queensland, a coal export terminal is planned to be converted to renewable hydrogen facility as well as export infrastructure. Dalrymple Bay Infrastructure has signed a memorandum of understanding with Queensland government company North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, infrastructure investors Brookfield Group and Japanese trade group Itochu Corporation to conduct a study to determine if a conversion could be viable .

While much of the world is moving away from coal, in an effort to produce less “dirty” fossil fuels or renewable alternatives, much of its infrastructure remains. But today, sites abandoned for years find a new use. Additionally, in areas where coal production is being shut down, there is potential for the development of new projects that will bring new industries, jobs and income to coal-dependent communities.

By Felicity Bradstock for

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