Solar power plant lights up abandoned nuclear project

Jul 13, 2017 by

Since 1981, 36 years ago, the Phipps Bend Nuclear Power Plant in Surgoinsville, Tennessee has sat abandoned. As of today – that site is finally producing CO2 free electricity, but instead with a 1MW solar power plant.

‘Birdseye Renewable Energy recently partnered with United Renewable Energy to design and construct a solar farm bringing energy generation to Hawkins County.’

The solar power plant is 1MW of peak production. The plant will produce approximately 1,100-1,400MWh/year. Considering the average household uses about 11MWh/year and contains 2.5 people, a system like this will provide enough electricity to balance out about 100 households and 250 people. The system will run for up to, or possibly more than, 30 years (modern solar panels are projected to run for greater than 35 years above 80% of their original power ratings).

The nuclear project was abandoned after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. Google Maps currently lists it as a ‘tourist attraction.’ The original nuclear power plant would have been greater than 2,400MW in size and because of capacity factors (nuclear runs almost 24/7 – solar only when the sun is up) it could have powered 1.8 million households on its own. Solar power, of course, needs complementary sources such as energy storage, nuclear power, gas or other renewables spread across large regions. Wikipedia lists 100 cancelled nuclear power plants in the USA mostly starting in the middle of the 1970s – before Three Mile Island.

Renewable energy on brownfield projects has become a hot topic. A ‘brownfield’ is a former industrial or commercial site where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination. Using screening criteria developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab, the EPA has pre-screened over 80,000 brownfield sites for their renewable energy potential. And they’ve got maps plus a whole lot of data available for each site.

This project is an interesting parallel to the current 1GW solar plant in development on the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown abandoned zone. Other projects making use of old coal plants include a mountaintop strip mine in Kentucky being developed to hold 50-100MW of solar power and a floating solar plant on a flooded coal mine in China that is 40MW.

Many other projects on abandoned coal land can be found. Wind farms as far back as 2000 were developed to sit on abandoned strip mines.

Some of the challenges of developing brownfields include complex permitting and extended development time. Personally, my time developing a landfill project taught me that the ground underneath the solar power systems was 1. unstable, and 2. sealed just enough to prevent leakage, but often not much more. Having to build on top of a landfill without digging into the ground increases costs.

Though technically very different from building out old brownfields, the irony of the Kentucky Coal Museum going solar was not lost on the world.

Header image of the solar power plant located above the never-completed nuclear facility.

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