Situated next to what was once the largest coal pit in Washington state, the TransAlta coal plant near the city of Centralia is turning into a source of clean energy. While TransAlta’s 2011 agreement to shut down the coal plant by 2025 will go a long way towards Washington’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 – the emissions produced by the Centralia plant represent 10 percent of the state’s total emissions – TransAlta is going even further, converting 1,000 acres of the former mine area into a solar farm. The farm will compensate for the loss of 1,340 megawatts from the shutting of the coal plant and will be called Tono Solar, after the long-gone pioneer town of Tono that once existed at the site.
TransAlta’s deal with Washington State to convert the former polluting plant into a clean-energy production site is a win-win for both parties involved. “This is a good-news story about moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewables,” NRDC senior attorney Noah Long told Ecowatch. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 requires coal companies to clean up a former coal plant or mine after it is shut down. “By putting solar on the land, it maintains an industrial use. This good use of a brownfield brings the costs of reclamation down quite a bit.”
The existing infrastructure at the site also eases the conversion process. “The location is good because it’s close to transmission lines,” TransAlta lead developer Ryan Schmidt said in a March 2018 presentation. “We know exactly what’s in the ground, because we put it there when we reclaimed the site.” While Tono Solar will produce only about 15 percent of the power once generated at the TransAlta coal plant, it is one of many renewable energy projects in the region that will serve Washington’s goals of reducing emissions and encouraging economic growth. The Centralia model of renewal could serve other communities around the United States as they attempt to rebuild after decades of industrial job decline. “There are lots of places in the Rust Belt of our country, not just coal mines,” Long said.