Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Recycle That Old Coal Plant!

Widows Creek Fossil Plant. Photo by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This image is in the public domain as a work of the US federal government.

Widows Creek Fossil Plant. Tennessee Valley Authority photo. 

By George Harvey

Google recently announced that it will build a new data center at the Widows Creek Power Plant in Jackson County, Alabama. Widows Creek is a coal-burning plant belonging to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). It recently shut down seven of its eight units because they emit excessive nitrogen oxides. Six of these are over sixty years old, and it was not worth upgrading them to eliminate pollutants. The last unit running, which is approaching the age of forty, is scheduled to be shut down in October.

Though we have not heard anything about the old buildings, it is likely that they will be torn completely down. They are old, and they were not built with the expectation that they would possibly outlast the generators and boilers in them. Indeed, they were put up in an age when waste was considered praiseworthy, and building a structure that might outlast its original use was not considered practical. One noteworthy structure on the property is a smoke stack 1001 feet tall, one of the tallest on Earth. Tall chimneys of this type kill birds and can be navigational hazards to aircraft, so it is best torn down.

Google will use 360 acres of the plant’s property to accommodate its data center. One valuable feature of the land is that it has considerable transmission infrastructure, and this will continue to be used. The data center will use a lot of electricity, about as much as a small town, and so those transmission lines will be used to bring power in. Since transmission lines are very expensive to build, this particular site was especially attractive to Google.

Google has indicated that the data center will be supplied with power from renewable sources. It will be at least partly supplied by renewable plants elsewhere in the area of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Given the area, which is the northeast corner of Alabama, it is most likely that the power will come from solar farms. As yet, however, we have not heard specifics. Google has historically been interested in supplying some of its own power from its own sites, especially from large rooftop solar arrays.

The project brings to mind a lot of other solar farms and parks that have been put up of late. Solar power is often installed on otherwise useless lands, such as the brownfield sites that remain when landfills are closed. Other sites used for solar in the Northeast include land along highways. But the old power plants, whether coal, natural gas, or nuclear, become often brownfield sites when they close. Coal-burning plants are particularly difficult to clean up, because they often have huge amounts of fly-ash that can be a massive environmental hazard. In fact the Widows Creek plant itself had a fly-ash spill that polluted a stream and the river it flowed into.

Try as we might, it is hard to regret the passing of this plant into history.

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