Zombie coal plants could threaten the US energy transition

On the banks of Maryland’s Patapsco River, about 10 miles south of Baltimore, there’s an aging coal plant that pretty much everyone wants to shut down. Local community activists, environmental groups, state officials, even the company that owns the coal-burning facility — they all want to close the Brandon Shores Power Plant next year.

But they can’t.

Think of Brandon Shores as a zombie coal plant: a polluting and money-losing facility that’s being kept alive due to a lack of foresight from grid planners and an outdated set of energy market and policy regimes that have made it nearly impossible to replace the plant with cheaper and cleaner alternatives.

The facility, which groups have been trying to shut down for years, now faces the prospect of being kept open at the expense of Maryland utility customers until at least 2028 — and potentially even longer. Efforts to replace it with a massive grid battery and targeted grid upgrades, which advocates say can be done quickly and at a comparatively low cost, have also been shot down.

Unless utilities, regional grid organizations, state regulators, and clean-power advocates can correct these problems, the 1,278-megawatt coal plant could foreshadow much broader threats to the prospect of cleaning up the mid-Atlantic region’s power grid.

“It’s become the poster child for what can happen — for what can go wrong — if we fail to plan effectively for the energy transition,” said Katie Siegner, a manager with RMI’s Carbon-Free Electricity team. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

“In the coming years, we could see a lot more Brandon Shores,” she said. ​“Or we could see it as a wake-up call to pursue alternative solutions.”

The Kafkaesque rules keeping zombie coal plants alive

At the heart of the Brandon Shores impasse is a set of Catch-22s in how PJM, the grid operator responsible for energy markets and grid planning across a 13-state region including Maryland, manages the prospect of potential power plant closures.

PJM is one of the most coal-heavy grids in the U.S., and coal plants — the dirtiest way to generate electricity — are in decline across the country. That’s partly due to state clean-energy goals like those in Maryland, which has a plan to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2035, and where the last of the state’s eight coal plants were set to shutter by next year. But an even bigger driver is that coal plants can’t compete economically with cheap fossil gas and renewable energy.

PJM is notorious for lack of planning. Much more to the story in the rest of the article.