The TransAlta power plant’s three tall stacks still generate electricity from coal. But coal-fired energy will only be a memory at TransAlta by 2025 — with a first burner to cease operation sooner, in 2020. It’s all part of Washington state’s larger plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels in less than 2 years from now. Yes, the power plant, located in Centralia, contributes 10% of the state’s total greenhouse gases — as much as the emissions from 1.75 million cars. But what will happen when the power plant’s smokestacks shut down forever? How will the state offset the loss of 1,340 megawatts of energy?
From Sterile Land to Solar Farm
Once a terraced, open-to-the-sky strip mine — the state’s largest coal pit — TransAlta is in the process of repurposing 1,000 acres of the former mine site to a solar farm.
“This is a good-news story about moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables,” says NRDC senior attorney Noah Long. The plant shutdown agreement was reached in 2011.
The Tono Solar project involves the construction of a 180MW solar power plant on 405 ha of land. It includes the construction of a substation and related infrastructure, the installation of solar panels and transformers, and the laying of transmission lines.
Tono Solar, which is expected to start producing clean energy as soon as late 2020, won’t fully make up for the power generated by the Centralia coal-fired plant — it’s expected to provide 180 megawatts of electricity. Utilities and corporate buyers are willing to buy electricity from local providers like Tono Solar.
Solar has the advantage of being scalable — solar systems are designed to handle proportionally very small to very large usage and service levels almost instantly. With scalability comes no significant drop in cost effectiveness, functionality, performance, or reliability. Such scalability is essential to transitioning away from coal-fired power plants like the one in Centralia and toward clean energy sources like solar.
15 miles from the site of the future Tono Solar farm, another renewable energy project is in the works. Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project is expected to produce almost 140 additional megawatts from 38 turbines. Together, the 2 projects may approach the levels needed for Puget Sound Energy customers who currently rely on TransAlta’s coal-fired plant.
Tono Ghost Landscape the Result of Mining Terraforming
Prior to coal mining, the Centralia power plant area was known as the pioneer town of Tono. Coal was discovered near Tono as early as 1855, and by the 1870s coal mines dotted the area. During the 1950s, with the Union Pacific’s shift from coal to diesel, most of the old town’s citizens left, and the mines closed down.
In 1969, coal mining around the Tono site was revived when the Pacific Power and Light Company bought the land and built a new steam plant to produce power. The ground on which the town of Tono had stood was leveled in order to get to the coal beneath it, and all vegetation and signs of human habitation disappeared.
In 2006, the TransAlta coal mine was the last in Washington state to be closed. The coal mining terraforming was so severe that the former town site is currently dominated by two massive ponds.
The Odd Couple of Reclamation and Renewables
TransAlta says the Tono Solar farm project will boost the local economy while also contributing to “an environmentally friendly electricity future for the state.”
The Tono Solar farm may be able to offset some job losses once the coal plant shuts down, as it is anticipated to provide around 300 construction jobs to build the solar installation. “This project would be a win-win — providing clean energy for Washington State and good-paying construction jobs and tax revenue for Southwest Washington,” Doug Howell with the Sierra Club confirmed.
However, Tono Solar will create only 4 permanent solar technician jobs.
Nonetheless, clean renewable energy advocates are optimistic about the TransAlta plant closing and hope that projects like the Tono Solar farm can serve as a blueprint for similar initiatives.
TransAlta says that it plans to completely eliminate coal from its portfolio by 2030.
Shutting toward the Centralia site has associated costs, of course. “Full reclamation of the site itself can be expensive,” attorney Long reminded. Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, coal companies are required to restore land once they have finished mining it to prevent groundwater contamination and erosion.
“Mine operators are required to minimize disturbances and adverse impact on fish, wildlife and related environmental values and achieve enhancement of such resources where practicable. Restoration of land and water resources is ranked as a priority in reclamation planning.”
“By putting solar on the land, it maintains an industrial use,” Long explained. “This good use of a brownfield brings the costs of reclamation down quite a bit.” TransAlta is nearby to transmission lines, and the company has keen knowledge of the underground infrastructure from the original power plant construction. The switch to solar on the former Tono town site works for many constituents.
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