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The Decline In Coal Appears To Have Been Exaggerated

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Old Coal Plants Get A Green Energy Facelift

  • Despite recent high profits from the coal industry, experts believe its resurgence is temporary and the sector is in long-term decline.
  • The current bureaucratic procedures governing renewable energy projects and grid expansion are notoriously slow, causing delays in the deployment of renewable energy projects.
  • Companies that own decommissioned fossil fuel plants can also benefit from this transition, repurposing their facilities for renewable energy generation.

New renewable energy projects have found an unlikely ally: old coal plants. Last year, for the first time in United States history, energy production from wind and solar power was higher than coal-fired energy production. The tide has turned in U.S. energy markets, and as coal plants increasingly close their doors, renewable energy projects can’t wait to snap up the infrastructure they leave behind – and get some government kickbacks in exchange for doing so. 

The global coal industry has enjoyed a little renaissance in recent years due to energy shortages and insecurity around the world brought on by Covid-related market volatility and the Russian war in Ukraine. Coal companies are currently raking in record profits, and the last few years have proven that companies that held on to their coal assets as others divested under pressure from financial institutions and the public sector had a winning strategy. Energy experts maintain, however, that coal’s comeback is only temporary, and that there’s no question that coal is in terminal decline. And that’s great news for the planet as well as the renewable energy sector, who are all too eager to upcycle the coal industry’s existing grid infrastructure. 

Insufficient grid infrastructure is one of the biggest hurdles to the growth of the domestic renewable energy industry. To keep up with renewable energy production targets, the country will need 47,300 gigawatt-miles of new power lines by 2035 – a 57% expansion of the existing grid and a two-fold increase in the current rate of construction – according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The current pace of construction is painfully slow due to a set of byzantine bureaucratic processes which govern permitting and oversight for renewable energy projects and grid expansion. The average review of renewable energy projects takes about 3.5 years, but there are cases in which a single transition line took over a decade to be completed.  Related: TotalEnergies CEO: Oil Companies Should Set Carbon Targets At Upcoming COP28

In many cases, renewable energy projects which are already completed have to sit on waitlists for years before they’re able to connect to the energy grid. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the backlog of large-scale electric generation – most of which are renewable energy projects – and energy storage projects that have applied for connection to the grid has increased significantly year over year, reaching 5,000 at the end of 2020. 

Using the grid-connected infrastructure left behind by shuttered coal plants for new solar arrays, battery storage facilities or low-carbon hydrogen projects could be a key solution to these problems and a way to ‘fast-track’ new developments. “It’s a way to allow clean energy resources to come online potentially years before they otherwise would have were they just working their way through the existing [process],” said Katie Siegner, a manager on the carbon-free electricity team at the energy research organization RMI, was recently quoted by E&E News. Reusing these existing systems could also bring down the cost of new projects, another key barrier to rapid clean energy expansion. 

Companies with fossil fuel power plants that are slated for closure also stand to benefit from such a conversion into renewables. “We want to utilize our current facilities that we’ve already paid for, the infrastructure we possess and the interconnection that’s out there,” said Tonja Wicks, vice president of regulatory affairs for renewable energy firm Elevate, who wants to convert natural gas plants owned by its parent company ArcLight into new battery projects. “Part of the challenge is, we need to have an accelerated process to replace our retiring resources with new, zero-emitting energy storage resources.” This approach could also be a huge boon to the local communities that would otherwise lose a key source of employment when fossil fuel firms close down their local operations. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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