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Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell coal plant in Port Sheldon Township. Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell coal plant in Port Sheldon Township. COURTESY PHOTO

Consumers Energy examining potential for clean energy at former coal plants

BY Monday, December 12, 2022 09:08am

Michigan’s second-largest electric utility is studying the potential to repurpose two soon-to-close coal plants with clean energy such as solar and battery storage.

Jackson-based Consumers Energy earlier this year hired a consulting firm for a “future use study” at the J.H. Campbell coal plant in Port Sheldon Township and the D.E. Karn Generating Complex near Bay City. Under a settlement agreement approved by state regulators earlier this year, Consumers plans to close the Campbell plant along Lake Michigan in 2025. The utility will close two coal-fired units at the Karn plant in 2023, while two more Karn units that run on natural gas and fuel oil will operate through May 2031, per the settlement agreement.

Amid the June settlement at the Michigan Public Service Commission, Consumers has hired a consulting firm to examine the potential for using the Karn and Campbell sites for renewable energy, utility executives told MiBiz. National consulting firm Percheron LLC is conducting the analysis.

Repurposing former coal plants has the advantage of existing onsite transmission infrastructure, which can be a major barrier to building new renewable energy projects. As well, Consumers Energy has a lofty goal to build 8,000 megawatts (MW) of new solar power by 2040.

“Given the amount of renewables we need to build, and given the fact that we already have some great transmission interconnects in place there, reusing them for clean energy generation is something that we’re definitely taking a close look at,” said Brandon Hofmeister, Consumers’ senior vice president of governmental, regulatory and public affairs. 

“Transmission interconnection can be a barrier, so when you’ve got a facility like that, you already have the transmission lines of the coal plant there. That’s attractive if you think about solar, storage and other types of resources,” Hofmeister said.

However, cost will be a key determinant in whether the utility pursues such a route. As well, Consumers wants to work with local officials and neighbors to determine whether renewable energy aligns with their future vision for the sites.

Hofmeister also said a potentially large manufacturing site could be a future use for the properties.

“All of that stuff is on the table, and we want to work with the state and local governments and others to try to make the best decision for the region and for Michigan,” he said.

U.S. coal plants are retiring at an accelerated pace as utilities transition to cleaner fuel sources to meet climate change and emission-reduction targets. According to the Sierra Club, more than 350 U.S. coal plants have closed or announced plans to close in recent years, while about 170 remain active. Coal generated about 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. last year, compared to about 50 percent in 2006, according to a Reuters report this year.

Aside from solar, former coal sites have also been eyed for natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration as well as nuclear. A U.S. Department of Energy report from this year found that hundreds of retired and operating coal plants across the country could be converted to various types and sizes of nuclear plants.

As well, a federal Inflation Reduction Act provision appropriates $5 billion for a loan guarantee program that helps finance projects that repurpose retired power plants.

While Consumers Energy isn’t yet modeling gas with carbon sequestration or small-scale nuclear, “in the long run, it’s possible,” Hofmeister said.

“When we get to net zero by 2040, we’re probably going to need some of those technologies, either gas with carbon capture and sequestration or small modular nuclear reactors,” he said. “Those decisions are a little bit premature for us. We still have a lot of just renewables and storage to build out this decade. That’s kind of the first priority for us.”

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