Zombie Coal Plants Reanimated to Stabilize the Grid

Old generators prop up voltage, helping grids soak up imported power and renewables

3 min read
Zombie Coal Plants Reanimated to Stabilize the Grid
A New Life: Electricians work to turn a generator into a synchronous condenser. This conversion, at a decades-old coal plant in Ohio, is likely one of many to come.
Photo: FirstEnergy

Environmental regulations and competition from gas-fired turbines and renewable energy sources are shutting down dozens of older coal-fired power plants across North America and Europe. But some of these aging plants’ induction generators will go on spinning for years after their furnaces and turbines are scrapped. That’s because operators need new ways to stabilize grids deprived of big power plants, and huge, free-­spinning generators synced to a grid’s AC frequency—synchronous condensers—are becoming an increasingly popular option.

The most recent such conversion is under way at the 62-year-old Eastlake coal-fired power plant near Cleveland. Here, Akron, Ohio–based utility FirstEnergy­ has repurposed three large generators and has two more conversions in process, due to start operating by June 2016. Several other conversions have recently been completed in California and Germany, and newly built synchronous condensers are now appearing on power grids, too.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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