Most coal fired power plants in Virginia have closed. What happens to the buildings after they shut down?
Standing with the New River to his back, Mark Perkins points to a large brick and metal structure, the Glen Lyn power plant, where he worked for 27 years. “You know, you have many memories, and a lot of that sort of comes back every time you walk through the building,” Perkins said.
We’re in Giles County, not far from the West Virginia line. This plant, which opened in 1919, was one of the oldest coal burning plants in the country when it closed in 2015. Perkins, who still works for Appalachian Power as a safety consultant, said he remembers working alongside men who had been at the plant since the 1940s.
“You got to hear the stories, and some of them, their dad worked here, and they worked here, and then their son worked here, and it was sort of a family affair in a lot of ways,” Perkins said.
How long will we produce electricity from coal? It’s a question being debated at COP28, the Climate Conference in Dubai. In Virginia, production of electricity from coal has dropped over the past fifteen years, and the state now gets most of its electricity from nuclear and natural gas.
Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy have closed most of Virginia’s coal fired power plants, or converted them to natural gas, in the past decade. A changing energy industry, and environmental regulations, made it more costly to keep these plants open.
“I think people were sad, obviously, when it was gonna close,” said Chris McKlarney, the Giles County administrator. He said when Glen Lyn closed in 2014, the county lost $400,000 in tax revenue, and many jobs.
“And in a rural community, jobs like that that pay well are hard to come by,” McKlarney said. He worked at Glen Lyn himself, his first job out of college.
For the most part, Giles County is a quiet, rural corner of Virginia. The Appalachian Trail, Cascades waterfall, and the New River bring some outdoor tourists. A handful of manufacturing companies also keep the economy going.
McKlarney said the manufacturing industry can grow here, and he hopes the Glen Lyn building can eventually be repurposed to bring another big employer here.
“There’s about 45,000 square foot of building there that would be an amazing industrial building,” McKlarney said. The railroad also goes right through the property. “We could never build anything like that. And it’s very unique,” McKlarney said.
There is a power substation on the site; Appalachian Power still uses it to distribute electricity. But the bulk of this site stands empty. Occasionally, groundhogs or a black bear will wander onto the property.
Beneath the ground, there’s another legacy: decades worth of coal ash buried under the dirt. Appalachian Power is required by law to remove all of the coal ash at the Glen Lyn site by 2035. Coal ash is a waste product that’s leftover from burning coal.
Studies have linked coal ash contamination to health risks, both for humans and wildlife. Removing it all safety, and relocating it to a hazardous waste landfill, will take years of work, said Teresa Hall, a spokesperson for Appalachian Power.
“Right now we don’t know what the future of this site is,” said Hall.
And they don’t know exactly where the coal ash will end up. The company is looking at building a new, lined landfill not far from the Glen Lyn site, possibly in West Virginia.
Even though the site wouldn’t be ready for years, Hall says they want to see it reused, if possible.
“We’ve heard of interest,” Hall said. “So we want to make sure we don’t leave any stone unturned with respect to what the potential is for this property.”
Giles County is applying for a grant from the local economic development agency to do a feasibility study to learn just how much it would cost to renovate this building. Depending on what they learn, they may apply for a federal grant to help repurpose it to produce energy from non-coal sources, or a manufacturing facility.