What happens when America’s coal-fired power plants die? | Environment


When the coal-fired power plant just outside the small town of Nucla, Colo. Closed in 2019, it turned into a disaster.

The factory, which opened in 1959, closed three years earlier than expected when it ran out of coal, leaving the city in shock and facing the loss of its largest employer. The facility provided nearly half of the region’s tax revenue, said Deana Sheriff, executive director of the West End Economic Development Corp, which serves Nucla and the surrounding area between Telluride and Grand Junction in western Colorado.

Left without vital funding for its fire department and school district, the city was terrified of its future.

But despite the factory shutting down prematurely and an unemployment rate that more than doubled overnight, Nucla had done enough to prepare. The town has relied on tourism, driven by outdoor activities, and the recent opening of dozens of small businesses to survive.

“Initially, we saw a lot of frustration and worry, mainly about the sale of houses and people moving,” said the sheriff. But the city has adapted quite well, she said: “We have diversified our economy enough that we don’t die because an industry is gone.”

Increasingly overwhelmed by cheaper alternatives, including renewables, and under the pressure of climate concerns, at least two dozen coal-fired power plants in the United States – many in small rural communities – are should close or downsize over the next 10 years, as are most of the coal mines that supply them, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and experts. Most coal communities face the same challenges as Nucla: How do you replace the jobs and taxpayer dollars that have kept these towns afloat for decades?

In some cases, such as in Nucla, local authorities have started planning early. In others, the closures appear to have taken executives by surprise.

The massive Navajo Power Plant in northern Arizona, within the Navajo Nation, also shut down in 2019. Local officials have complained that plant operators shut down the facility for decades more. sooner than expected, although the region had two years to prepare after the announcement. Little planning appears to have preceded the shutdown.

“What does ‘prepare’ mean? Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler said. Regional leaders didn’t see many options to replace money and jobs as the shutdown loomed, she said.

Arizona’s lack of preparedness – compounded by the ensuing pandemic that shut down tourism to the scenic region near the Grand Canyon and a drought that devastated popular boating destination Lake Powell – has had dire consequences. Coconino County has lost $ 40 million a year in property taxes since the plant closed just outside the town of Page, Fowler said. Families have been separated as a relative left for a job at another power plant, and there are fears the Navajo Nation could cut essential services due to tax losses.

The trio of concrete piles at the Navajo Power Plant near Page, Ariz., Being demolished on December 19, 2020. Photograph: George Hardeen / Navajo Generating Station / AP

A second Navajo power station, Four Corners, is expected to close within the next decade, as is the Cholla power plant just outside the Nation. A nearby coal mine on the Hopi Reservation, which supplied power to the Navajo plant, has also closed. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez did not respond to a request for an interview.

“The Nation hasn’t done enough planning,” said Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo water rights activist who heads the environmental nonprofit Tó Nizhóní Ániup. “They should have foreseen this the day the coal plant signed the leases. We can’t just depend on something that we knew wasn’t going to last forever.

Cultural and regional differences have a huge impact on how communities prepare for and recover from a coal-fired power plant shutdown. Isolated cities that have relied on coal for decades – including jobs at power plants that pay an average of $ 90,000 or more – may be reluctant to talk about a future without coal. And don’t even mention solar or wind power in some places.

“Renewable energy, for the workforce out there, is the antichrist,” said Clint McRae, owner of the Rocker Six Cattle Company near the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in MT and a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, an advocacy group that fights for water. quality protections. Some communities remain very loyal to coal and see energy sources such as solar and wind as a threat to their way of life.

“It’s a very difficult subject to discuss there. It will take time to integrate into the community, ”said McRae.

The Colstrip plant should be retired in 2025, according to the latest estimates from its operator, and McRae and others are worried about the pollution it will leave behind. Like other factories, Colstrip collected coal ash – a toxic byproduct – from ponds. This pollution has infiltrated in groundwater.

The Colstrip coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, MT is expected to close by 2025.
Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, MT is expected to close by 2025. Photograph: Matt Brown / AP

Coal ash can often be the most dangerous legacy of a closed factory. In 2014, 39,000 tonnes of ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water from a plant owned by Duke Energy that had closed two years earlier spilled into the Dan River in North Carolina.

Duke Energy has two other plants in Person County, North Carolina, which are expected to close within six years. Among those who have tried to get the community to make the transition to its coal-based economy is State Senator Mike Woodard, who admits it has been a difficult hill to climb in an area that doesn’t has not yet accepted the reality of the future of coal.

“The person’s county is going to have to accept that there is a new way of doing business out there,” said Woodard, a Democrat who helped negotiate the recently enacted state law. clean energy law. The future is renewable energy, not coal, he added. “We’re all going to be in the boat together and it would be great if we row in the same direction.”

Some states have done better than others in helping to row the boat. With a slew of coal closures coming to Colorado, the state has set up an office to help communities plan for the transition.

Led by Director Wade Buchanan, the Just Transition Office has attempted to steer local officials and residents away from the coal-to-renewables argument and think about the transition in more economic terms. Buchanan compares the transition to that experienced by forest communities in the Pacific Northwest, who successfully transformed their economies when sawmills began to shut down.

“I think we are making a mistake in thinking that this is only related to coal or only related to energy,” Buchanan said. “There is a cultural factor that makes it unique. But when you take a step back and think about how to get away from that, there are other places that depend on an industry or an employer for a while. “

Buchanan cited Nucla as an example of how to effectively manage this transition, with more than 100 diverse small businesses opened in the region since the plant closed, in part thanks to tax breaks and other financial incentives. States and outsiders must let rural communities determine their own transitions, he said.

The Nucla region has relied on its forces to recover from the closure, the sheriff said. Locals try to open small guesthouses rather than large hotels. The sheriff’s organization runs a grain mill for local businesses and plans to build a meat processing plant to make life easier for local ranchers. Other new ventures include restaurant businesses, cafes, organic markets, and ATV rentals.

Residents have made it clear that they like the calm atmosphere of Nucla, the sheriff said, and that they don’t want to replace the coal-fired power plant with huge distribution centers, call centers or offices. “We’re not asking Google to come in and create a new tech site here,” she said. “It’s about finding the right mix of businesses that want that rural lifestyle. We are isolated and we love it.

The Nucla model is not always reproducible in less scenic areas. While western Colorado and the area near the Navajo Power Plant are obvious tourist destinations, it can be difficult for other communities to replace coal dollars with tourism dollars. Amanda Ormond, who previously headed the Arizona office of energy and is now director of the Western Grid Group, urged community leaders to think about their unique strengths, then look for federal funding options to make the most of them. gone and fill in the gaps.

Then there is the question of what to do with the closed factory sites. Utilities across the country have discussed replacing coal-fired power plants with gas-fired power plants, which has been criticized by campaigners calling for an end to fossil fuel use, while other power plants have become university sports facilities, restaurants and cannabis cultivation sites, according to Bloomberg.

Communities should explore the non-energy possibilities of old power plants, building on facilities already in place, Buchanan said. “There are often railways, water rights, transmission lines,” he said. “There is a lot of energy infrastructure and it’s an asset to build on.

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