Reviews | Old power plants can be transformed into new green facilities

Dan W. Reicher is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability and an advisor to the Climate Adaptive Infrastructure Fund. Previously, he was US Undersecretary of Energy and Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives at Google.

After decades of failing to tackle the climate crisis head-on, Congress finally got its act together in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). We have nearly $500 billion in government support to address this existential threat by building thousands of new green energy facilities – solar power plants, wind farms, long-distance transmission lines, even nuclear reactors and carbon capture – across the country. The only problem: More and more, people don’t want to live next to these often massive new factoriesfarmers decry the loss of prime land and neighboring communities say the projects will sacrifice their rural character.

But the good news is that there is a faster and cheaper way to develop clean energy: to transform thousands of old power plants into a series of new green installations. And the IRA is providing an additional $250 billion to the Department of Energy to help fund just that.

These facilities include everything from old power plants, transmission lines and oil wells to long-standing dams, waste sites as well as industrial and residential buildings. Consider this shining example: In 2010, the Department of Energy loaned a small business $465 million who helped retrofit a mothballed former car factory to build electric vehicles. The company? Tesla – now the most valuable automaker on the planet.

Certainly, we still have many new clean energy projects to develop, but we do not have the luxury of ignoring what is already being built. And the “old is new” opportunities are limitless. Across the United States, dozens of coal-fired power plants, with transmission lines, significant land and supportive adjacent communities, are closing. In Illinois, nine of these factories are on their way to becoming solar farms, with a single facility housing 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres, enough to generate electricity for tens of thousands of homes, plus a massive battery for times when the sun isn’t shining . New England’s largest coal-fired power station, on the Massachusetts coast in Somerset, will soon be replaced by a factory making undersea power cables for offshore wind turbines and connecting a nearby offshore wind farm to the power grid .

To reduce carbon emissions, natural gas-fired turbines are converted to burn hydrogenmore and more extracted from water using carbon-free electricity. Old oil rigs can be reused to develop new geothermal wells for power generation, while some retired oil wells can be tapped to produce hot water to provide geothermal heating. According to its supporters, an effort will make Oklahoma – with nearly 500,000 old oil and gas wells – the “Geothermal Capitol of the Nation.”

several thousand kilometers of existing power lines can be upgraded to transport more electricity – and existing railroads and highways could provide existing rights-of-way for new power lines — thus helping to avoid fierce battles for the installation of a new transmission. Old generators at some of America’s 2,300 hydroelectric plants can be replaced to produce more electricity, and existing dams can be retrofitted to store electricity with “pumped hydroelectricity”. Older wind turbines wind farms can be improved with longer blades and more powerful generators or replaced entirely with new machines. Former landfills and surface mines can accommodate renewable energy projects and restore land damaged in the process. And, of course, we can retrofit factories, offices and homes to use less energy – and increasingly meet their remaining electricity needs with on-site solar or wind power.

Even existing nuclear power plants can be modernized and kept online. In California, the state legislature recently voted to support the upgrade and continued operation of the Diablo Canyon reactors, which generate nearly 10% of the state’s electricity. And the Department of Energy reported this month that old coal-fired power plants are good locations for new nuclear reactors.

The $250 Billion IRA is key to unlocking these opportunities, especially for projects demonstrating retrofit potential with both attractive financial upside and simple replicability. The government can provide loans or provide loan guarantees in three areas: to re-equip, re-equip, reallocate or replace outdated energy infrastructure; enable energy facilities in operation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution; and to clean up the environmental damage associated with power plants. The new law also provides $5 billion for closing loans and other costs that borrowers would otherwise have to bear.

We need to get this important investment vehicle on the road quickly and make it work well. The climate crisis means we don’t have the usual years for the Department of Energy to enact regulations and wrangle in court. Some of the investment – ​​and the resulting jobs and tax revenue – is expected to take place in economically distressed parts of the country, especially where energy-related jobs such as coal mining are rapidly disappearing. . We need to incentivize clean energy developers and investors to retrofit old facilities and rapidly advance shovel-ready projects. And, above all, the enemies of nuclear energy, hydroelectricity, carbon capture – and more generally the greening of fossil fuel power plants – must temper their opposition to these technologies to increase our chances of defeating the climate change.

The IRA has given us an amazing tool to do something meaningful about the climate. We now need the courage to use this tool – and quickly – on these compelling opportunities of old is new.

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