AES Indiana’s Petersburg Generating Station, which towers over the White River here in southwest Indiana, has been burning coal to generate electricity since the late 1960s.
That era, though, will come to an end soon. Two of the power plant’s four coal-burning units have already retired and the last is planning to shut down in 2025.
Power generation, however, will continue. Two of those coal units will be switched out to cleaner burning natural gas, and the company is also building an 800 megawatt-hour battery storage array at the Petersburg plant to take advantage of the existing grid connections and meet its electric capacity obligations, banking power when prices and power demand is low and discharging when demand climbs and the regional grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) needs the juice for the electric grid.
AES’ project isn’t alone. Those same factors, along with the increasing resistance to new greenfield wind, solar and storage development, as well as massive backlogs in the queues to connect new power projects to the grid, mean former mine lands and the plants that burned the coal they produced are increasingly attractive spots for new renewable development.
States can play a major role in speeding these transitions, said Harry Godfrey, a managing director at Advanced Energy United, a trade association representing wind, solar, energy efficiency, battery storage and other businesses. On the one hand, renewable energy and decarbonization mandates are helping spur the transition to cleaner electricity. Twenty three states have 100% clean energy goals. Other policies, such as “securitization” legislation, can blunt the costs to consumers of retiring coal plants before the end of their useful lives. “They’re finding interesting financing options to manage those stranded costs,” Godfrey said.
Illinois has a grant program specifically designed to incentivize retiring or shuttered coal plants to install energy storage.
Also, tax credits in the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest piece of climate legislation in U.S. history, include a bonus 10% credit for “energy communities,” defined as brownfield sites, areas with large historic levels of employment or tax revenue derived from coal, oil, gas extraction or communities where a coal power station closed after 2009 or a coal mine closed after 1999, among other criteria.
States that want to help speed the transition from old fossil fuel sites to new renewable energy facilities and take advantage of the jobs and tax revenue they can bring need to get on the ball, Godfrey said.
That means inventorying and packaging sites in a similar fashion as states do to lure developers for other big economic development projects like trying to attract a factory or distribution center, he said.
“The IRA is intentionally designed to promote these conversions,” he said. “The state’s role in economic development is really pivotal.”
Danny Van Clief, CEO of Sun Tribe Development, part of Sun Tribe Solar, a Charlottesville, Virginia, company that’s one of the largest clean energy companies in the mid-Atlantic, said it’s become increasingly difficult to get large solar farms approved. “Some of that resistance is rational and some of that resistance is somewhat irrational. We’re actually battling organized resistance to the deployment of renewables,” he said.
That opposition, Van Clief said, “causes us to be incredibly thoughtful about where we site potential projects.” Former mine lands and other “previously disturbed areas” tend to be less controversial sites and inject investment into communities that mined the coal that powered the United States for most of its industrialized history but have fallen on hard times since.
Sun Tribe, along with another solar developer, Washington, D.C.-based Sol Systems, is working with The Nature Conservancy to build solar projects on former coal mine lands in Southwest Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky, that fall within its Cumberland Forest Project, one of the group’s largest conservation efforts at 253,000 acres.
In Virginia, the state Energy Department, formerly the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, helped The Nature Conservancy identify non-forested former mine lands near existing utility lines and other infrastructure, which were then whittled down to avoid areas with important wildlife, habitat or other considerations that made them unsuitable for solar development.
In the case of the Cumberland Forest project, the conservancy and the Virginia Department of Energy helped assure Sun Tribe that it wasn’t “onboarding additional liability” as a result of building on the former minelands, said Betsy Arlen, the company’s vice president of real estate.
Building solar on former mineland is picking up steam across the country, from West Virginia and Vermont to Ohio and Nevada. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there may be as much as 43 million acres of brownfields suitable for renewable power development.
States can inventory the minelands in their state (and in some cases under their control) then analyze where nearby electric infrastructure is in order to gauge the possibilities for renewable power, Johnson said. Then they could explore whether redevelopment authorities could help turn brownfields into power projects by creating streamlined permitting processes and other incentives.