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Some good environmental news

Occasional Observer

Recent news regarding the environment has been varied, some quite discouraging while other news seems very optimistic.

First the bad news. By a 6 to 3 margin, The U.S. Supreme Court, issued a decision severely limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to restrict power plant emissions and suggested that future rules regulating industry be shaped less by executive agencies and more by Congress. This is bad news for environmentalists.

Now some better news. After being defeated in the Senate last fall, President Biden’s Build Back Better bill has resurfaced once again, this time called the Inflation Reduction bill. A few weeks ago it was proclaimed dead by its key author, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. But further negotiations with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, the Majority Leader from N.Y., has brought it back to life. Since all 50 Republican senators are opposed, the Democrats need all 50 of their senators plus the vice-president to pass the bil under “reconciliation.” They still need the currently undeclared vote of Krysten Sinema of Arizona.

The newly named “Inflation Reduction Act,” if passed, is an omnibus bill with $369 billion earmarked for environmental improvement, the largest amount ever for such purposes.There are many provisions in the package that are anathema to environmentalists, such as those favoring more fossil fuel development. But Sen. Manchin, who has made a fortune in the coal business and has received more contributions from the fossil fuel industry than any other senator, drove a hard bargain. But still most Democrats are enthusiastic and feel that these compromises are necessary to get the bill passed. A vote is expected in early August.

In addition, there is some very  good environmental news with regard to coal burning power plants which may help offset Sen. Manchin’s efforts to keep them going. They’re being closed, not only because they are extremely polluting but also because they are less economical than newer, more environmentally friendly ones fueled by wind and solar power.

But the comparative cost in favor of wind and solar is additionally improved when a coal plant is partially re-used as part of the new facility. Left behind after an old coal burning power plant is decommissioned are its connections to the power grid, miles and miles of high tension wiring and towers that can be directly hooked up to the new facility, thus saving many millions of dollars that would otherwise have to be spent on new transmission facilities.

Nowadays, both wind and solar power facilities usually include giant batteries or arrays of batteries that can often be installed in the shell of the old coal fired plant (these batteries solve the problem of supplying power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing). Furthermore, using the existing building shell saves a lot of money.

The majority of the 266 remaining coal fired power plants in the United States are approaching the end of their operational lifetime. Most appear to be good prospects for conversion to alternative energy plants.

Most also include large parcels of land that might be used for wind or solar farms or other productive purposes thereby significantly reducing the overall cost of putting the new plant into operation.

Local regulatory hurdles that often hamper the construction of new fossil fuel plants are apt to be less of a problem with cleaner wind or solar ones, all the more so when they are re-using already in place faculities imcluding transmission lines and substations.

At least a dozen states have solar-powered facilities planned to replace aging coal fired power plants. New Jersey and Massachusetts each have off-shore wind farms in the works that will connect underwater to decommissioned coal plants located on the coast.

A coal fired plant in Baldwin, Ill., that’s set to retire by 2025, will get 190,000 solar panels on 500 acres of land it already owns. Together, the panels will generate 68 megawatts of power, enough to supply somewhere between 13,600 and 34,000 homes, depending on the time of year.

If converting older coal fired power plants in the United States to wind, solar, and other cleaner fuels makes sense, it makes sense to do likewise in much of the rest of the world.


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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