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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Life After Death For The Coal Industry

  • While the long-term future of coal may look bleak, its workforce and infrastructure is being repurposed to great effect around the world
  • Demand for coal may decline, but demand for well-connected energy centers with a nearby workforce will not
  • In countries like Australia where the coal industry is primed for growth, it is being combined with renewable energy in order to reduce associated emissions

Around the world, countries are exploring ways of repurposing their coal infrastructure, as many governments pledge to stop production of the fossil fuel within the next decade or two. While the U.K. looks to geothermal energy as the potential answer, the U.S. is converting old coal plants into solar farms and nuclear energy sites, and South Africa is using infrastructure for community and sports centers. In Australia, while there are no plans for the government to turn its back on coal any time soon, the world’s largest coal port has announced it will be powered entirely by renewable energy. 

Across the U.S. there are several coal regions now looking at how to repurpose disused or soon to be abandoned infrastructure as well as how to reinvigorate towns that previously relied on coal jobs and revenue. While some areas are choosing to redevelop coal facilities to be used as student unions and recreational centers, others are welcoming renewable energy companies, hoping they’ll bring new jobs with their operations. 

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

There are also several examples of coal plants and associated materials being used for renewable or low-carbon energy production. For example, Bill Gates’ Terrapower LLC plans to develop new nuclear plants on old coal sites in Wyoming. Chris Levesque, CEO of Terrapower explained by using existing energy sites, “You already have that ready transmission connection.” He highlighted that these sites also have water infrastructure and a skilled workforce that can be retrained. 

In Massachusetts, the Mount Tom Solar Farm has been established on a former coal plant site. As it was already connected to the grid, it made it easy for the solar firm to take over the site and continue using much of the infrastructure. Since 2018, the site has been home to a 5.8-megawatt photovoltaic facility with battery storage, supporting the state’s renewable energy goals. 

Demolishing coal facilities can be not only costly but potentially harmful to the environment. It also has a knock-on effect on local areas due to job losses. Repurposing these facilities, however, can help regions to recycle infrastructure and create new jobs. 

In 2021, South Africa secured $8.5 billion from Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and European Union to repurpose many of its coal plants. Jesse Burton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Cape Town, explained of the financing, “It’s a major test of whether wealthy nations can help developing countries embark on a just transition away from coal.”

At present, South Africa relies on coal for 87 percent of its electricity production, with 120,000 workers employed directly in the coal industry. As the world’s 15th biggest emitter of CO2, it will have to accelerate its renewable energy activities as well as curb its coal production if the country hopes to achieve its 2030 carbon-cutting goals. 

Elsewhere, in the U.K., there are plans to convert flooded coal mines in the north of the country into geothermal power plants. Plans for a pilot project were approved by the South Tyneside Council in 2021 to test the potential for a geothermal energy project at the former Hebburn Colliery, which shut down in 1932. 

And while Australia has no plans to abandon coal any time soon, with India and China continuing to rely heavily on its coal exports, it is looking to switch to renewables for certain parts of its operations. 

The Port of Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port, announced last week that it will now be powered entirely by renewable energy. The port, which exports 165Mt of coal annually, is aiming to decarbonize by 2040 by boosting the proportion of non-coal business to make up half of its revenue by 2030. It has partnered with Iberdrola, operator of the Bodangora wind farm in New South Wales to provide the port with power. In addition, it has converted 97 percent of its vehicles to electric. 

In Queensland, there are plans for a coal export terminal to be converted into a renewable hydrogen facility as well as export infrastructure. The firm Dalrymple Bay Infrastructure has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Queensland government-owned North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, infrastructure investors Brookfield Group and Japanese trading group Itochu Corporation to carry out a study to see whether a conversion could be viable.  

As much of the world moves away from coal, aiming to produce less ‘dirty’ fossil fuels or renewable alternatives, much of its infrastructure remains. But now, sites that have been abandoned for years are finding a new purpose. In addition, in areas where coal production is being phased out, there is the potential to develop new projects that will bring new industries, jobs, and revenue to coal-reliant communities.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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