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Finding New Opportunity For Old Coal-Fired Power Plant Sites

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 7:27 pm

Nearly 300 coal-fired power plants have been "retired" since 2010, according to the Sierra Club. It's a trend that continues despite President Trump's support for coal. That has left many communities worried that those now-idled places will simply be mothballed.

"We don't want to see sites like this rust away, be eyesores on the community and offer no real tax revenue going forward, no employment opportunities," says Denise Brinley, executive director at the Pennsylvania Governor's Office of Energy.

Her state has seen 14 coal plants shut down in the past nine years. As a result, the Department of Community and Economic Development has created a plan for redeveloping some of them.

The agency produces promotional "playbooks" that outline the characteristics of a site — both the benefits and drawbacks — and then offers ideas for what kinds of businesses might locate there.

One of the first plans is for a stretch of about 219 acres along the Susquehanna River in the small central Pennsylvania town of Shamokin Dam.

Drive into town, and you can't miss four tall smokestacks rising from a huge brick building. It housed the coal-fired power plant's steam generators, which produced electricity for more than six decades before the facility shut down in 2014.

Part of the old coal power plant site in Shamokin Dam, Pa., will house a marijuana growing facility, slated to start operating next year.
Jeff Brady / NPR

These days there's new activity at the site. On the north edge, crews are laying a concrete foundation for a different kind of plant, a medical marijuana cultivating facility. It's quite a shift for the typically sedate power generation business.

"There were a few chuckles in the conference calls in the mornings when we were first talking about it as an opportunity," says Joe Zokaites, principal of Arcova, which is redeveloping the site. "But everyone is on board and supports it now."

Joe Zokaites with redevelopment firm Arcova stands in front of a natural gas power plant built next to the old coal plant. The new facility takes up a fraction of the space and produces nearly three times the electricity.
Jeff Brady / NPR

The Massachusetts company Insa is building the marijuana grow house and plans to sell to dispensaries in Pennsylvania.

This is just part of the plan for the Shamokin Dam site. A shiny new natural gas power plant has been built already. It takes up a fraction of the space the coal plant did, yet produces almost three times the electricity.

Pennsylvania's cheap and abundant natural gas supplies are a big reason coal plants here are shutting down.

Denise Brinley is executive director at the Pennsylvania Governor's Office of Energy. The state produces "playbooks" to highlight ways old coal power plant sites could be redeveloped.
Jeff Brady / NPR

Brinley, of the Governor's Office of Energy, says once a playbook is printed, copies are distributed to local leaders and companies looking to do business in Pennsylvania.

The plans acknowledge environmental concerns. Often there's pollution from decades of burning coal and storing ash.

A draft copy of the Shamokin Dam playbook shows the site wouldn't be suitable for building houses, and there would be limits on using the soil and groundwater.

The report suggests potential uses include a second natural gas power plant, which already is planned. Other options are a warehouse, wood waste recycling or a data center.

The plan also highlights assets, including nearby railroad tracks, access to municipal or river water, and power transmission lines.

The power lines could make it profitable to install solar panels where ash from the coal plant was dumped for many years. That ash disposal area now has soil on top and looks like a meadow, but it's not stable enough to construct a heavy building without expensive modifications.

Pennsylvania's playbook suggests installing solar panels on part of the site where coal ash was disposed.
Jeff Brady / NPR

Replacing coal plants with new renewable energy is an emerging trend around the country. It's happening in Washington and two sites in Massachusetts, one in Holyoke and Brayton Point.

Environmental groups cheer these transitions but say the federal government should play a bigger role in coordinating efforts across the country.

That's unlikely for now, as President Trump is more interested in boosting the coal business than easing a transition away from it.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hundreds of U.S. coal-fired power plants have closed in the last decade, and that's a trend that continues despite President Trump's support for coal. Each plant closing leaves a big question - what to do with the site. NPR's Jeff Brady reports the state of Pennsylvania has a plan for that.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In the small central Pennsylvania town of Shamokin Dam, four tall smokestacks rise from a huge brick building. This coal-fired power plant generated electricity for more than six decades; it shut down five years ago. Now crews are laying a concrete foundation for a completely different kind of plant.

JOE ZOKAITES: For a new medical marijuana cultivating facility.

BRADY: Joe Zokaites, with the redevelopment firm Arcova, admits this was an adjustment for the sedate power generation business.

ZOKAITES: There were a few chuckles in the conference calls in the mornings when we were first talking about it as an opportunity, but everyone's on board and supports it now.

BRADY: This is just part of the redevelopment plan for this site. We head over to the roof of an old office building next to the coal plant to see another element. It's a shiny, new natural gas power plant.

DENISE BRINLEY: We have new stacks, old stacks, and the juxtaposition of the two is pretty profound.

BRADY: Denise Brinley, with the Pennsylvania Governor's Office of Energy, says 14 coal power plants closed in the state in the last nine years; gas power plants replaced a lot of them. The concern is companies will just mothball the old coal plants.

BRINLEY: We don't want to see sites like this rust away, be eyesores on the community and offer no real tax revenue going forward, no employment opportunities.

BRADY: So the state is developing promotional playbooks for these sites. The playbooks acknowledge environmental concerns; often there's pollution from decades of burning coal. For this site, that means no houses can be built, and you can't use the groundwater. The plan also highlights assets, things like railroad tracks nearby or the tall power transmission lines Joe Zokaites points out as we head to the other end of the property.

ZOKAITES: This is a main north-south thoroughfare for power transmission.

BRADY: Those power lines could make it profitable to install solar panels where ash from the coal plant was dumped for many years. That area now has soil on top and looks like a meadow, but underneath, it's not stable enough to construct a heavy building without expensive modifications. Replacing coal plants with new renewable energy is a small trend around the country that sometimes comes with a celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRADY: In April, in southern Massachusetts, a band played for a small crowd. They watched as explosives were used to implode two huge cooling towers at a former coal power plant. Member station WCAI recorded the moment they fell.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BRADY: Now this coastal site will become a staging area for the growing offshore wind power industry. Environmental groups also cheer these transitions and say programs like Pennsylvania's are a good start for creating new jobs where old ones were lost. But they say the federal government should play a bigger role, too. That's unlikely for now, as President Trump tries to boost the coal business. Still, the number of coal plants closed since 2010 is approaching 300, and that means even more decisions about what to do with those sites next.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITNEY BALLEN'S "GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.