Today, 2TWe of coal-fired power plants are responsible for almost one-third of global net annual CO2 emissions. Despite international agreements reached at COP26 in Glasgow in 2022 to ‘phase out’ coal use, global coal consumption continues to hit record highs. Coal remains a key energy source and driver of economic growth in developing and developed countries so simply shutting them down is economically and politically unrealistic. Interest in repowering these coal plants with emission-free heat sources (advanced fission, fusion, and geothermal) is gathering steam but will require a new delivery model to achieve the scale and rate of deployment necessary to convert the entire global fleet by 2050.
Terra Praxis is designing a system that will enable the rapid repurposing of coal plant fleets with non-emitting advanced heat sources. This will allow for the continued operation of a sizable portion of existing power plants—without emissions. Repowering coal plants leverages existing sites, infrastructure, transmission lines, industry knowledge, workforces, capital, and supply chains to accelerate the clean energy transition. It also ensures continuity for communities reliant on existing power plants for energy, jobs, tax revenue, and continued economic development.
By replacing coal-fired boilers at existing coal plants with carbon-free small modular reactors (SMRs), also known as advanced heat sources, these repowered plants can generate emissions-free electricity.
A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) assessed the detailed impacts and potential outcomes from a coal-to-nuclear transition. Based on the nuclear technology choices and sizes evaluated to replace a large coal plant of 1,200 MWe generation capacity, the study team found that nuclear overnight costs of capital could decrease by 15% to 35% when compared to a greenfield construction project, depending on the extent of reuse of infrastructure from the coal facility. The range depends on compatibility with key infrastructure including: office buildings and electric switchyard components and transmission infrastructure, heat-sink components, and steam-cycle components. The DOE study found that for a 500 MWe advanced heat source, the total assumed nuclear power plant construction overnight construction cost would be $2.46 billion for a greenfield project, and potential savings could achieve $493 million to $872 million through reuse of coal plant infrastructure. This estimate is consistent with our findings that upgrading these plants to run on advanced heat sources will deliver a capital cost saving of 28%-35% (compared with a new nuclear plant) and a 9%-28% reduction in the levelized cost of energy. The set of innovations Terra Praxis is developing to address these challenges, including standardized design and regulatory strategies, should increase the market opportunity even beyond the DOE’s current assessment. Terra Praxis’ Repowering Coal solution is targeting a Localized Cost of Energy of $35-$40 per megawatt-hour. Considering the new DOE production tax credit of $30 per megawatt-hour, provisioned by the Inflation Reduction Act, repowering coal-fired plants with advanced nuclear power has the potential to be a highly profitable investment opportunity.
Repowering coal plants would quickly transform coal-fired power plants facing an uncertain future, into profitable jewels of the new clean energy system. The emissions-free power plants will be cheaper and more profitable to operate than before, and help to ensure continuity for communities reliant on these plants for energy, jobs, and continued economic development.
A recent case study by the U.S. Department of Energy found that by replacing 1,200 MWe coal capacity with 924 MWe of nuclear capacity, regional economic activity could increase by as much as $275 million, implying a 92% increase in tax revenues, as well as an additional 650 permanent new jobs to the region. Pre-closure, employment at the coal plant would be estimated at 150 jobs.
Significant employment opportunities would be created more widely throughout the REPOWER supply chain. Rather than thousands of migrant jobs dislocating workers from their homes for years at a time working on decade-long construction projects, the REPOWER system is designed to create high quality, permanent manufacturing-based jobs in high performance factories where teams work together all day and go home to their families at night.
How can coal plants be revitalized as a central part of the new energy economy? We want a future for coal plants where the jobs are maintained as reliable and livable wages for the next century, where the plant brings in more revenue to the local community, where lives aren’t lost to air pollution every year, where no one has to worry about blackouts, and where power remains reliable in the hands of your community.
Repowering coal plants with new advanced heat sources will help enable this just transition by sustaining the jobs and community tax revenues associated with existing coal plants; the larger social, economic and environmental benefits associated with continued reliable and flexible electricity generation; and the continued use of existing transmission lines—without emissions.
With a repowered plant, a community can produce clean and steady power for decades to come, and be paid fairly for it.
A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 80% of retired and operating coal power plant sites have the basic characteristics needed to be considered amenable to host an advanced nuclear reactor. For the recently retired plant sites evaluated, this represents a capacity potential of 64.8 GWe to be backfit at 125 sites. For the operating plant sites evaluated, this represents a capacity potential of 198.5 GWe to be backfit at 190 sites.
Coal plants are both the world’s single largest source of electricity and carbon emissions—and demand for coal is growing worldwide. The burning of coal causes more than 40% of global carbon emissions from energy use and more than 75% of emissions from electricity generation. Repowering Coal is the single largest carbon abatement opportunity on the planet and the most practical way to accelerate the clean energy transition.