Power Plants to Parklands is Turning Michigan’s Retired Coal Plants Into Community Hubs of Solace, Wildlife & Solar Energy


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There are currently more than 200 coal-fired power plants in operation in the United States, but the country has been scaling back since reaching its coal generation peak in 2011. By the end of 2026, the U.S. is projected to have retired half of its coal capacity.

Coal plants emit toxic pollutants into the air, water and soil, leaving a legacy of contamination that must be cleaned up after their decommission.

But what happens to coal plants after they shut down?

Michigan’s Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) sees retiring coal plants — once viewed as industrial scars on the landscape — as “canvases for the creation of new greenways, parklands, wildlife habitat, and clean energy development,” a press release from ELPC said.

“If you look around Michigan, and you look around many of the other states in the Great Lakes region, there is a large number of coal plants sitting on the shores of the Lakes. And lakefront property is, of course, valuable. If you look at it as a coal plant site — which is how most of us are used to looking at a plant where there’s been a coal plant operating for 40 or 50 or 60 years — it’s sometimes easy to forget that these sites are often right along the lakefront or right along a river, or in some cases, next door to a state or international wildlife refuge,” Howard Learner, president and executive director of ELPC, told EcoWatch.

From 2010 to 2019, 290 coal plants with more than 100 gigawatts (GW) of capacity were closed across the U.S.

“Once these coal plants retire, each of the sites begins a multi-year retirement process that includes decommissioning, remediation, and redevelopment,” the press release said.

Major Michigan utility company Consumers Energy has plans to retire two of its remaining coal plants 15 years ahead of schedule by 2025. Their closure presents a unique opportunity for the repurposing of the industrial brownfields they will leave behind into hubs of renewable energy, community collaboration and environmental solace.

“About 10 years ago, we began to map out where the coal plants are around the Midwest that we thought might be shutting down in the reasonably near future, either because they were very old and using old technology that was being displaced in the market, or the economics were leading to the plant shutting down, or other factors. And we came up with a list of plants from our energy expert side that seemed to be candidates for retirement over the next decade. Then we mapped that out with a natural resources perspective — not an energy perspective — but where are they located, and what added values in terms of outdoor recreational use, beaches for public use and access, wildlife habitat and conservation purposes might be achieved in some of these locations,” Learner told EcoWatch.

With its new Power Plants to Parklands (P2P) initiative, ELPC plans to reinvision the redevelopment portion of the transition from wasteland to sanctuary.

“Historically, coal plants were situated on lakes and rivers because of their reliance on water for cooling systems. As a result, these facilities often occupy marquee waterfront locations, making them prime for public use. However, retired coal plant sites are too often left as a blight in the community. Many are fenced off from the public, as off-limits as prisons,” the press release said.

Since they are already connected to the energy grid, retired coal plants come with the infrastructure needed for clean energy redevelopment.

“All these coal plant sites are, of course, hardwired into the electric grid. They have coal plants that were generating electricity, so they have transmission lines, and nobody has to fight the battle of whether some community likes or opposes transmission lines or some of the battles that are popping up on energy storage or solar projects,” Learner said.

ELPC is collaborating with communities in Michigan, as well as a variety of stakeholders — including environmental groups, municipal governments, businesses and utilities — to turn former coal plants into parklands where there is community support and it is ecologically and financially feasible to do so.

“It’s like repurposing an old railway station for a more modern transportation hub,” ELPC said. “With transmission lines already in place, these sites sidestep the red tape that can stunt the deployment of new clean energy facilities. In addition, these new clean energy plants offer an opportunity to reinvest in the communities formerly supported by the aging coal plants.”

ELPC is currently focused on Michigan sites where coal plants are either closed or scheduled to be shut down in the next three years.

One example is the Daniel E. Karn Power Plant. Owned by Consumers Energy, the plant will be redeveloped to provide over 85 MW of solar — enough to power about 20,000 homes.

“Just think about it. If you’ve had a high voltage transmission line going into the Daniel E. Karn coal plant site — which is over in Essexville, Michigan, on Saginaw Bay — and the coal plant shut down, it’s a great place to develop, as Consumers Energy is doing, almost 100 megawatts of solar energy, because that’s hardwired right into the transmission grid,” Learner told EcoWatch.

Two of the Karn site’s units have been retired and two others will continue operations using oil and natural gas in times of peak demand when needed until 2031.

“The coal plants are shutting down,” Learner said. “But what happens too often is the coal plant gets shut down, the utility puts a fence around it and a couple of security guards, and there it sits. And hopefully the toxic materials get cleaned up, perhaps not, and it’s an old brownfield, it’s an eyesore. That’s the default. This is an opportunity to create real value for the future.”

ELPC is collaborating with the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy as site planning for decommission begins, engaging members of the community to find out what they would like to see most before coming up with a draft conservation plan.

“As an example of the ecological significance, the Karn Power Plant sits on the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron, a critical area for migratory birds. The bay and its surrounding wetlands provide essential habitat for over 1,000 species, making it an essential stopover point along the Central Flyway of North America,” ELPC said.

Two other projects ELPC is currently working on are the Trenton Channel Power Plant — a 220 MW energy storage facility owned by DTE Energy — and the J.H. Campbell coal plant.

“The Trenton Channel coal plant, which is about 20 miles south of Detroit, is immediately adjacent to the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge. The Campbell coal plant, which is in West Olive, Michigan, sits right along the Lake Michigan shoreline and the Pigeon River corridor. These are all plants that have significant parkland value and potential, outdoor recreation use potential and wildlife habitat protection opportunities,” Learner told EcoWatch.

Another benefit of reusing retiring coal plant sites is that it helps maintain and can increase local tax revenue that gets lost by retiring coal plants.

“Consumers Energy wants to develop the largest battery energy storage facility in the country at the Campbell Coal Plant site. That will be a lot of property tax revenues. At the Karn coal plant site, they’re putting in 85 megawatts of solar. To give you a perspective, that’s about 250,000 solar panels. Again, that will be property tax revenues,” Learner said.

The P2P initiative imagines the repurposed sites as public green spaces where residents can enjoy a “sense of place” and connect with the healing power of nature unblemished by fossil fuels’ destructive impacts.

“As the curtain falls on the era of coal plants in Michigan and the U.S., ELPC’s Power Plants to Parklands project isn’t just about repurposing retired coal plant sites; it offers an opportunity for utilities, stakeholders, and communities to collaborate in shaping a more sustainable and prosperous future for the region,” ELPC said. “ELPC’s P2P initiative aspires to be a model for the nation — a blueprint for communities navigating the closure of coal plants.”

This article originally appeared on EcoWatch and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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This article originally appeared on EcoWatch and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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