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Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell coal plant in Ottawa County is slated to close in 2025. Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell coal plant in Ottawa County is slated to close in 2025. COURTESY OF CONSUMERS ENERGY

‘Power plants to parklands’: Initiative explores public access, clean energy at former Michigan coal plants

BY Tuesday, January 17, 2023 02:58pm

A Midwest environmental law group is launching a “major new” initiative this year to work with utilities, municipalities and conservation groups to study the potential reuse of Michigan coal plants as public parkland as well as renewable energy production.

The Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center’s (ELPC) “power plants to parklands” project is in the early stages of examining the reuse of at least four coal plants along each of the Great Lakes that Michigan touches. 

Consumers Energy owns two operating coal plants in Ottawa County and near Bay City; DTE Energy owns the former Trenton Channel coal plant near Lake Erie; and a municipal utility owns a retired coal plant along Lake Superior in Marquette.

“There’s a once in a generation strategic opportunity … to look at those sites as an opportunity to both obtain new parkland and wildlife refuges for the public, and redevelop the sites for solar and energy storage and perhaps green hydrogen development,” ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner told MiBiz.

The group has started initial discussions with utilities, local government officials and other conservation-minded advocates. It plans to hire a Michigan-based project director who has experience in industrial redevelopment, Learner said.

He added that Michigan is an ideal state to launch such a project for multiple reasons. For one, coal plants are highly intensive water users, and Michigan has a disproportionate number of coal plants sited along its abundant Great Lakes shoreline. As well, utility business structures — often a municipally owned or single investor-owned company regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission — make it easier to coordinate with these site owners compared to in states like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, Learner said.

Finally, Michigan’s coal plants along the Great Lakes are often adjacent or located in proximity to public parkland, including the Quanicassee Wildlife Area near Consumers’ Karn plant near Bay City and the Pigeon River Greenway near Consumers’ Campbell plant in Ottawa County. The sites also come equipped with existing transmission and distribution infrastructure that could support new, renewable energy generation, Learner said.

“What we’re trying to do here is make some lemonade out of lemons,” Learner said.

He added that coal plant closures in other Midwest communities — such as Waukegan, Ill., where ELPC is active — have created groundwater contamination problems from legacy coal ash storage sites.

“These would have to be eco-business deals with buy-in from multiple parties, but it’s a real opportunity for the future as opposed to what happens too often: The coal plants sit there and provide no value to anyone,” Learner said.

Indeed, Michigan’s utilities have accelerated coal-plant closure plans in recent years to meet new long-term climate change planning goals that include significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions from their power supply mix.

Utilities are already repurposing some sites, such as Consumers’ former B.C. Cobb plant in Muskegon that was decommissioned in 2018 and redeveloped as a new port. The city of Holland is considering mixed-use redevelopment plans near the former James DeYoung plant on Lake Macatawa, while the city of Grand Haven is also mulling site remediation and redevelopment plans at the former J.B. Sims plant, which was demolished in 2021.

As MiBiz recently reported, Consumers Energy already is considering the potential for solar and possibly energy storage at its Campbell and Karn plant locations via a “future use study” led by national consulting firm Percheron LLC. 

In addition to the existing infrastructure, Consumers plans to build 8,000 megawatts of solar power by 2040 and will need suitable land where it can find it.

“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,” Brandon Hofmeister, Consumers’ senior vice president of governmental, regulatory and public affairs, said last month. 

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.

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