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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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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