Shifting away from fossil fuels is vital for reducing the impact of climate change, but it can also take a toll on coal industry jobs. Existing coal infrastructure and employees could be valuable contributors to the future of clean energy across the country.
The U.S. has hundreds of retired coal plants. As of 2023, only about 200 of over 700 coal plants nationwide are still operational. Additionally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that 23% of currently operating coal plants will retire by the end of the decade. As countries shift away from coal and toward renewable energy to reduce the effects of climate change, energy industry leaders are considering how coal plants could be an opportunity for growth. Rather than closing coal plants entirely, what if they could be converted into hydrogen or geothermal power plants? For instance, graphite producer Omnis plans to convert one of West Virginia’s largest coal plants into a hydrogen plant over the next few years. Conversion may not be possible at every site, but it could have a significant positive impact where it is feasible. Where this type of conversion is possible, workers currently in the coal industry could be retrained to operate renewable energy plants, preventing job loss in the shift away from coal. Creating geothermal and hydrogen power plants where coal plants used to operate also supports local economies built on the coal industry. These communities don’t need to be left behind in the transition to renewables. Instead, they can remain thriving energy industry communities, only with geothermal or hydrogen power generation rather than coal. Additionally, the infrastructure is already there. Of course, geothermal and hydrogen power generation requires different equipment and systems than coal. The facilities built for coal plants could still be reused, such as offices, parking lots and other multi-purpose structures. The ability to reuse some existing infrastructure by repurposing retired coal plants reduces the cost and time to build hydrogen and geothermal plants. Converting facilities could be especially beneficial since the construction sector is strained due to materials and labor shortages.
Of course, converting coal plants into renewable energy facilities comes with some challenges. The process of burning coal to create electricity is significantly different from geothermal or hydrogen power generation. Renewables require different technologies and infrastructure. So, the first and most obvious hurdle to converting coal plants is the investment and work required to physically convert these facilities. That may only be possible at some retired coal plants for various reasons. For instance, geothermal power plants can only be built in locations that have underground geothermal energy sources. The switch to renewables isn’t a one-step process, either. Reducing the negative impact of climate change also requires addressing pollution created by coal plants. For example, the sites of some retired plants may need bioremediation. This process cleans water and soil to remove toxicity and pollution, such as acidity, carbon pollution, particulates and microbial contamination. Bioremediation and similar processes are an important part of ensuring the communities around coal plants can live safely and recover from coal-related pollution. These processes maximize the local benefits of transitioning coal plants to renewable power plants. Additionally, existing coal industry workers will require training to work with geothermal or hydrogen power instead. Retraining existing employees is highly advantageous since they’ve proven they have the right skill set to succeed in the energy industry. Reskilling coal employees ensures everyone benefits from transforming retired coal plants.
What would converting retired coal plants into hydrogen or geothermal power plants require? First, location would determine whether geothermal power is an option. Geothermal energy requires a subsurface heat or steam source, such as a hot spring or hydrothermal vent. These power sources may only be available near some coal plants. If geothermal power is an option, a retired coal plant would be refitted with the equipment necessary to draw heat or steam from an underground reservoir. Depending on the geothermal power source, the heat could be used to heat buildings, or steam could generate electricity. Hydrogen power plants are generally more flexible than geothermal and may be able to reuse more of a retired coal plant’s existing infrastructure. Hydrogen production has many sources, including nuclear power, biomass, wind and solar. Hydrogen power plants create electricity by feeding liquid hydrogen into fuel cells, similar to how fuel cell electric vehicles work but on a larger scale.
Transitioning away from coal is necessary to combat climate change, but it doesn’t have to mean all new infrastructure. Converting retired coal plants into hydrogen or geothermal power plants creates valuable jobs, saves money, reduces waste and takes advantage of existing facilities. Communities founded on the coal industry can thrive in the new era of renewable energy and support the growth of clean electricity nationwide.
See more posts from Jane Marsh at environment.co
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