Addressing the Increased Need to Decommission Power Plants in a Sustainable Manner

Coal-fired power plant decommissioning and remediation work is not typically a utility company’s core business. That’s why having the right partner and implementing a sound plan to ensure both environmental and economic success are so important. If the right steps are taken, decommissioning, remediating, and reclamation of a coal-fired power plant site can create enormous opportunity to revitalize an area and improve the community, while also eliminating the utility’s environmental risk and liabilities.

There are approximately 241 existing coal-fired power plants in the U.S. that are on a steady rate to be decommissioned and demolished over the next 20 to 30 years. Over the last decade, the U.S. has shut down or announced plans to retire more than 65% of its coal power plants. Nearly 9.2 GW of coal-fired generation was retired in 2020 and an additional 3.2 GW is expected to retire in 2021, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data.

This steady decline in recent years comes as utilities and power plant owners retire coal-fired power plants due to stricter Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policies, and increased state and local legislative efforts to meet emissions goals to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG). In addition, they recognize the opportunity to improve operational efficiencies as gas and renewable energy options become more economical.

With this increased need to retire and decommission older generating assets around the country, the question then becomes how this decommissioning and remediation work can be carried out in an economical and environmentally friendly manner, removing the risk from the utilities and minimizing their costs, while benefiting the surrounding communities by improving the environment and driving local economic growth. For each decommissioning project, this can be accomplished by implementing proper planning and having the right partners in place to ensure both environmental and economic success at the utility and local community levels. If the right steps are taken, decommissioning, remediating, and reclamation of a coal-fired power plant site can create enormous opportunity to revitalize an area and increase the wellbeing of its citizens, while also eliminating the utility’s environmental risk and liabilities that come along with these large-scale projects.

Charah Solutions, a leading provider of environmental services and byproduct sales to the power generation industry with over 30 years of experience, has done just this for multiple utility partners at decommissioned power plant sites across the country. Charah Solutions’ Environmental Risk Transfer (ERT) services provide innovative solutions to large-scale, complex environmental power plant shutdown and decommissioning, remediation, and reuse projects that utilities and power plant owners around the country are currently facing as more coal-fired power plants are shuttered.

These large-scale projects typically involve shutting down, decommissioning, and demolishing the existing coal-fired power plant, remediating onsite ash ponds and landfills, and restoring the land. Charah Solutions’ ERT services provide a custom, environmentally friendly approach to these projects, which removes the liability from the utility through the acquisition of the property, decommissioning of the power plant and associated facilities, and environmental remediation of the ash ponds and landfills to meet all local, state, and federal regulations. This includes recycling the steel and other metals through the demolition of the power plant and other facilities on the property, and repurposing the property upon project completion for environmental or community use to drive local economic growth and increase the wellbeing of its citizens.

The repurposing of the remediated site at project end typically includes uses such as renewable energy, light industrial, restoration of natural habitat for marine and other wildlife, community use areas, or mixed-use including retail, while the ash from remediated site ponds and landfills is beneficially recycled in the production of “Green Concrete.” This ERT approach not only benefits the environment but also provides economic benefits as it creates local professional and trade jobs, contributes to local business activity, supports the tax base, and lowers the costs for the utility and its ratepayers.

Decommissioning That Eliminates Utilities’ Risks While Benefiting the Environment and Communities

Utilities or power plant owners can typically choose to tackle power plant decommissioning projects in one of two ways. They can self-perform the decommissioning work or they can sell the property and all of the assets to another company, such as Charah Solutions, which then performs the decommissioning work, environmental remediation work, and repositions the property for future use while assuming related environmental liabilities and insurance obligations. Benefits of selling the property and transferring the environmental liabilities and insurance obligations to another company include:

    ■ Elimination of all environmental risk and insurance obligations related to the retired asset from the utility’s balance sheet as these risks are transferred as part of the agreement.
    ■ Controlled and known cost investment to complete the project as an upfront amount is determined for project management and land acquisition, and the responsibility is then transferred for project completion.
    ■ Reduced cost exposure to ratepayers and shareholders.
    ■ Already-secured financing to ensure budget success for completion of the entire project.
    ■ Shorter time to project completion as these services are completed at a faster pace given the expertise and experience of handling these specific services on a daily basis including power plant shutdown; demolition; asbestos removal; remediation of the coal combustion residuals (CCR) ponds and landfills; marketing of the byproducts for reuse into multiple industries; design engineering; construction quality assurance/construction quality control (CQA/CQC) testing; assessment, planning, and execution of the land reclamation plan; working with the local government bodies to ensure economic benefits and community use of the space; and more.
    ■ Guarantee of project completion per agreed to scope of work and project completion dates as the utility places control and oversight with a company that specializes in these complex remediation and reclamation projects.
    ■ Streamlined management of a single partner to handle turnkey decommissioning, remediation, and repurposing work at the site versus qualifying, hiring, and managing a large number of contractors to handle the many specific tasks that need to be completed throughout the course of the entire project.
    ■ Proven partner who fully understands the environmental impact of the project and is qualified to meet the federal, state, and local regulations for each step of the remediation and reclamation process.
    ■ Assurance that the reuse plan for the property upon remediation completion meets stated goals to provide both environmental benefits as well as economic stimulation for the community.

ERT Services That Drive Cost Savings and Results for Utilities

Charah Solutions has had great success utilizing its ERT services model with multiple utilities around the country, which provides upfront costs savings to the utility and ongoing partnership throughout the reclamation process.

Gibbons Creek Steam Electric Station and Reservoir. An example of Charah Solutions’ ERT services is its agreement signed with the Texas Municipal Power Agency (TMPA) for the acquisition, remediation, and repurposing of Gibbons Creek Steam Electric Station and Reservoir in Grimes County, Texas. Here, the company is providing turnkey services to remediate existing ash ponds and landfills, and repurpose the property following the coal-fired power plant’s shut down and decommissioning in 2018.

Through the agreement, Charah Solutions took full ownership of the 6,166-acre area, including the closed power station, the 3,500-acre reservoir, dam, and spillway. The company assumed all responsibility for the demolition of the power plant, and it’s performing all environmental remediation work for the site landfills and ash ponds (Figure 1), and providing repurposing opportunities.

1. These images show progress achieved on ash pond remediation at the Gibbons Creek Steam Electric Station in Grimes County, Texas. The image on the left is from February 2021 and the image on the right was taken in August 2021. Courtesy: Charah Solutions Inc.

The property is to be repurposed in an environmentally conscious manner that will expand economic activity and benefit the surrounding communities through job creation, support of local contractors for portions of the project, promotion of industry, and support of the tax base, as well as restore the property to a state that will enable it to be put to its best potential use. The land reuse plan includes options for solar power and battery energy storage, which utilize the existing transmission system, maximization of the reservoir, re-use of the existing rail system, and other industrial uses, such as agricultural and commercial use. This Charah Solutions ERT project is on schedule to complete demolition in early 2022 (Figure 2) and environmental remediation work by late 2023.

2. These images show progress achieved on the Gibbons Creek power plant demolition. The image on the left is from February 2021 and the image on the right was taken in August 2021. Courtesy: Charah Solutions Inc.

“The transaction will save member cities and rate payers millions in expenses associated with decommissioning and environmentally remediating the plant site while eliminating the risks for TMPA and redeveloping the plant and property to expand economic activity to support the tax base, including the Grimes County Schools,” TMPA General Manager Bob Kahn said.

B.C. Cobb Generating Facility. Remediating the existing ash ponds at Consumers Energy’s former B.C. Cobb Generating Facility near Muskegon Lake in Muskegon, Michigan, was part of the post-closure regulation needs and sustainability objectives for the site and community in order to further advance the wetlands along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Charah Solutions approached Consumers with an innovative and cost-effective proposal to meet these goals, and provide remediation of the ponds and repurposing of the site. This comprehensive solution provides effective management of all environmental aspects to safely close and enhance the site for the benefit of the community, while lowering the cost for Consumers and its customers, hiring 25 local operators, as well as using local vendor partners to assist with the remediation work at the site. The turnkey services for the project include the property acquisition, site remediation, and repurposing of the land.

This work also includes the beneficial recycling of 650,000 cubic yards of ash materials, sustainable repurposing of the property, and ongoing groundwater testing. Upon completion of the project, the B.C. Cobb ash ponds, including ponds 0–8 and the bottom ash pond on the property totaling 62.8 acres, will be fully returned to natural wetland areas for the benefit of the watershed and for the community to enjoy (Figure 3). This Charah Solutions ERT project is on pace from the original schedule to complete site remediation by the end of 2021 and obtain regulatory approval in 2022.

3. These images show progress achieved on the B.C. Cobb Generating Facility ash ponds 0–8 and bottom ash pond in Muskegon, Michigan. The image on the left is from April 2020 and the image on the right was taken in July 2021. Courtesy: Charah Solutions Inc.

Avon Lake Generating Station. Most recently, in July 2021, Charah Solutions entered into a binding agreement to acquire the 627-MW coal-fired Avon Lake Generating Station in Avon Lake, Ohio, and adjacent property from GenOn for the shutdown and decommissioning of the coal power plant and performing all environmental remediation and repurposing work at the site. This property consists of multiple parcels of land adjacent to the generating plant, including the generating station, submerged lands lease in Lake Erie, substation/switchgear and transformers, administrative offices and structures, coal rail and storage yard parcels, as well as the interconnection agreement. Charah Solutions has worked with the City of Avon Lake and will position the property to expand economic activity to benefit the surrounding communities through job creation, while sustainably remediating the site for the betterment of the environment and for the citizens of the City of Avon Lake moving forward.

The Mission of Decommissioning

With the growing shutdown and decommissioning of coal-fired power plants over the next decade, the mission is very clear for the many utilities and power plant owners responsible: eliminate environmental risks, minimize and control costs, meet emissions reduction timeline goals, and drive economic and environmental benefits to the local communities. All of these very important elements must be met for project success, and it is the responsibility of the entire industry to ensure this increasing number of decommissioning projects provide maximum economic growth and job creation during operation and the best possible environmental benefits for communities upon completion. Sustainable and economical solutions like Charah Solutions’ innovative ERT services will provide utilities with the best path forward to accomplish this mission.

Scott Reschly is vice president of operations at Charah Solutions Inc.

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