Hours Before Presidential Debate, Coal Sinks & Floating Solar Panels Soar

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As if President* Trump didn’t need any more headaches while prepping for last night’s big debate, yesterday the unicorn of save-all-your-coal-jobs charged headlong into a massive dose of reality. The gigantic energy firm Vistra announced it will shutter its entire Midwest coal fleet in favor of renewables and energy storage. Then, the Commander-in-Chief’s own Department of Energy twisted the knife by suggesting that almost half of all global electricity consumption could be satisfied by the addition of floating solar panels to hydropower reservoirs. There goes the coal export market — et tu, Brute?

solar panels coal jobs
The floating solar sector is on the rise, and the massive energy company Vistra is aiming to pepper retired coal power plants with solar panels (photo courtesy of Vistra, “Vision Zero”).

Vistra Goes From Coal To Solar Panels & Energy Storage

Vistra is far from the first energy company to pull the coal rug out from under Trump, but it can take the cake for being one of the biggest ones, with assets sprawling over 20 states.

In yesterday’s announcement, Vistra launched its new Vistra Zero plan. The company aims to “accelerate its transition to clean power generation sources and advance efforts to significantly reduce its carbon footprint.”

To that end, Vistra plans to retire 7 coal power plants in Illinois and Ohio totaling more than 6,800 megawatts. The retirements are slated to begin in 2022 and conclude in 2027.

That adds to the 12 coal power plants Vistra already closed, or announced closing, during the Trump administration. All together, the 19 coal power plant retirements account for with a total of 16,000 megawatts in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts.


The company’s natural gas and nuclear assets may help fill the vacuum, but Vistra also plans on 6 new solar power energy projects and an energy storage project to pitch in. All together the 7 projects total almost 1,000 megawatts, and all of those clean megawatts are aimed straight at Texas’s ERCOT market, and — hey, weren’t we just noticing that renewable energy developers are chomping at the bit to connect to that market? Interesting!

But wait, there’s more. Vistra is already eyeballing a total of almost 1,500 more clean megawatts in Texas, California, and Illinois, and it is “exploring potential future development opportunities at many of the company’s existing power plant sites.”

Floating Solar Could Fill 10% Of US Energy Demand

If you’re thinking that could have something to do with floating solar panels, maybe. If Vistra doesn’t have any hydropower assets today, it may have them sometime in the sparkling green future.

What the company does have is coal power plants, and it is backing a proposed Illinois law that promotes the repurposing of coal power plant sites for solar power.

As for floating solar panels, the common denominator is using the built infrastructure to install more solar panels on US soil, without trampling over soil that could be put to other uses.

The US Energy Department is all over floating solar like white on rice. It has been pitching the floating solar idea as a way to build more solar arrays without infringing on land for agriculture, recreation, conservation, and so forth, by putting solar panels on human-made water bodies that already take up land anyways.

Military facilities represent another land use conflict that could be resolved by floating solar panels, so there’s also a national defense angle.

Floating solar involves a bottom line incentive as well. A flat body of water eliminates the expense of ground preparation for ground-mounted solar arrays, and the cooling effect of water can boost the efficiency of the solar cells.

Environmental benefits also enter the mix. The shade from a floating solar array can help reduce the threat of toxic algae blooms, and it can help conserve water by reducing evaporation.

In 2018, DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory took stock of hydropower reservoirs and other human-made bodies of water in the US. The researchers came up with a very conservative estimate that floating solar could provide for about 10% of US energy demand, even if solar panels only covered 27% of the total surface area of a subset of available water bodies.

Wait, Floating Solar Could Fill Almost Half Of Global Demand, Maybe

Coincidentally or not, NREL decided to announce the results of its latest solar floating solar study just hours before Trump took the debate stage in Cleveland last night.

The new study teased out the benefits of combining floating PV panels with hydropower plants, of which the US has plenty.

“Hybrid systems of floating solar panels and hydropower plants may hold the technical potential to produce a significant portion of the electricity generated annually across the globe,” enthused NREL in a press release.

“The researchers estimate that adding floating solar panels to bodies of water that are already home to hydropower stations could produce as much as 7.6 terawatts of potential power a year from the solar PV systems alone, or about 10,600 terawatt-hours of potential annual generation,” NREL continued.

Those terawatts and terawatt-hours are just from the solar panels, by the way. The hydropower wattage is icing on the cake.

The figure of 10,600 terawatt-hours comes to almost half of the global electricity consumption, which the International Energy Agency estimated at approximately 22,300 terawatt-hours in 2018.

Don’t get too excited just yet. NREL’s previous study on floating solar in the US examined a carefully selected subset of water bodies located in areas where high prices for land and electricity would make floating PV economical. The new global study is focused on available resources, whether or not the financials work out.

“This does not represent what could be economically feasible or what the markets could actually support. Rather, it is an upper-bound estimate of feasible resources that considers waterbody constraints and generation system performance,” explained Nathan Lee, who is a researcher with NREL’s Integrated Decision Support group and lead author of the new study.

Not Too Rosy After All?

For all the details, check out the article, “Hybrid floating solar photovoltaics-hydropower systems: Benefits and global assessment of technical potential,” in the December issue of the journal Renewable Energy.

Meanwhile, perhaps the new NREL scenario is not too overly optimistic after all. Part of the reasoning behind the piggyback ride on hydropower plants is to take advantage of existing transmission lines and other energy infrastructure.

So far the size of floating solar installations has been clocking in at the single-digit megawatt scale, but it looks like the sector is heating up fast.

By way of comparison, check out a new 4.4 megawatt floating PV array at a water treatment plant in Sayreville, New Jersey. The array is the largest of its kind in commercial operation in the US to date.

Now take a look at the goings-on in India. Our friends over at Construction Review report that India is already planning on 1.8 gigawatts of PV panels at four hydropower dams through the state-owned Damodar Valley Corporation. The first phase of the three-phase project alone will drop 50 gigawatts of floating solar onto the world stage.

That’s a drop in the bucket. According to a study cited by Construction Review, India is sitting on a potential 280 gigawatts of floating solar. That’s a somewhat conservative estimate based on 30% of the surface area on medium-to-large reservoirs.

Coal Out, Renewables In

For all the talk about saving all your coal jobs, barely two years after his inauguration Trump seemed to have given up the whole idea.

He failed to mention coal at all in his 2019 State of the Union address, preferring to dwell on the virtues of the US oil and gas industry. Come to think of it, he could have touted carbon capture somewhere in those 90 minutes of debate last night, as the conversation — such as it was — turned to climate change and climate solutions.

Since Trump has clearly given up on saving coal jobs, it’s no accident that his 2020 campaign base-rallying cry has switched from saving coal jobs to full-on racism, as evidenced by his hearty shout-out to a known white supremacist organization during last night’s debate.

Trump convinced coal voters to make a deal with the devil in 2016, and left them holding the bag. Whether or not he can fool them twice remains to be seen.

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*Yes, he went there.

Photo (cropped): “Vistra Zero” renewable energy plan courtesy of Vistra.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3242 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey