Coal / Energy

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

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

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

BOSTON, MA — “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.”

— Richard Martin, MIT Technology Review

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