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Nature-Based Solutions When Retiring Coal Plants

Nature-Based Solutions When Retiring Coal Plants

It’s never too late – or too early – to adopt nature-based solutions. As we recover from a summer of forest fires, drought warnings and intense storms, we are reminded by our delicate relationship with nature and the increasingly evident impacts of climate change.

Engineers sit at the crossroad of the built and natural world. Black & Veatch has a unique opportunity to help you integrate nature-based thinking and applications across every stage of a project infrastructure’s lifecycle. Proactive assessment of environmental considerations and enhancements can be carried out during planning and development, across the useful life of the project and its operation, as well as during the end-of-life and decommissioning stages.

As mega-facilities occupying significant amounts of land, coal plants in particular are often located near major water sources for cooling and discharge purposes; they are also situated near coal mines, coal combustion residual landfills, borrow areas, wetlands, cooling water lakes, open fields or forests. While perhaps not intuitive to think of coal plants and nature-based solutions (NbS) together, asset owners have a great opportunity to apply them as part of the ongoing operation and eventual decommissioning of the facility, creating opportunities for these businesses to engage in meaningful dialogue and action with local communities, governments and environmental interest groups.

Once revered as the engines that powered our economies and societies, coal-fired power plants are steadily retiring as we seek to decarbonize our nation’s electricity generation portfolio. More than nine gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired generation retired in 2020 in the United States and coal generation will continue to decline, according to S&P Global Platts, from supplying 23 percent of generation in 2021 to between 15 and 16 percent by 2026.

 

How can we integrate nature-based solutions at coal plants?

For operating facilities, NbS – creating natural buffers against storms and flooding, retaining biodiversity connectivity with the surrounding landscape, creating carbon sinks and much more site-specific adaptations – should be considered in parallel with ongoing maintenance or any planned construction work. Doing such projects separately increases the likelihood of rework and runs the risk of being cut during budget reviews.

The decommissioning process presents an ideal opportunity to integrate these solutions because construction – or more specifically, deconstruction – is underway. Integration of NbS into decommissioning not only facilitates budget approval for the scheme, it provides additional economies of scale. A key benefit is that decommissioning work, particularly land reclamation and other earth-moving activities, can be optimized. This means ‘touch-it-once’ work can be identified during planning and ultimately result in more efficient decommissioning.  An added benefit is that major capital planning can absorb NbS as it will represent only a minor incremental expense. Notably, the land is already under ownership and control of the facility owner – what better reason, and no excuses, to mitigate past land use practices and return portions of the site back to functioning ecosystems, carbon sinks, sustainable agriculture, or public recreation/education opportunities to give back to the stakeholders (the consumers) which supported the facility during its life-span.

 

From decommissioning to recommissioning

Nature-based solutions are particularly valuable when considered the next life of the land. Such approaches can support the rebirth of the land for alternative uses beyond the typical business-as-usual or grey use.

For example, if a local water body is adjacent to the property and which may have previously been used as the cooling lake during power operations, it could be converted into an educational facility or park for public use providing a resource for the community.

The importance of NbS during decommissioning also retains good environmental and sustainability efforts already in practice. Some companies have existing programs that support biodiversity and conservation at their facilities and such integration ensures these efforts are not erased during the decommissioning.

Indeed, insight from existing efforts can serve as a baseline for additional conservation opportunities. For example, nesting platforms built in an effort to avoid and/or minimize avian electrocution could be considered as could any “Power the Pollinators” commitments or programs initiated.

 

Implementing Nature-based Solutions

Nature-based solutions tend to be more cost-effective over time, requiring less maintenance costs overall. Nature-based solutions are generally not capital intensive but rely on creating conditions that encourage project teams, owners and other stakeholders to identify the right opportunities. Some practical steps are needed to engineer these circumstances.

At the start of the planning process, facility owners should conduct a desktop and onsite environmental inventory of existing environmental conditions, specifically terrestrial and aquatic habitat mapping. This will result in the identification of NbS opportunities unique to the project site.  

Design Charettes – both with the owner and/or stakeholders – help identify conceptual uses of the land, based on site characteristics and the goals of the owner, community and other interest groups.  Design Charettes will also help tie ideas together with planned phases of activities such as demolition, materials removal, land reclamation and coal ash basin closure. Such pre-work will help establish estimated cost and timelines for the conservation efforts.

Establishing a NbS culture is key. Having knowledge about the impact and risks of climate change and degradation of biodiversity, there is an onus on engineers to champion and promote NbS practices for all infrastructure projects. And crucially: apply nature-based solutions at the start, middle and especially at the end of the infrastructure’s lifecycle.

Nature-based solutions are defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.”

By incorporating them into the planning, design, operation or decommissioning of infrastructure they protect our natural ecosystems to help store carbon and draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. They can be designed to preserve biodiversity and can increase the local environment’s resilience against natural disasters. When done appropriately, they also address broader challenges we face as societies and promote human well-being providing truly longstanding and sustainable benefits.

Nature-based solutions are site-specific but fall across three broad categories:

  1. Biosphere reserves: these solutions focus on persevering buffer zones between human activity and nature from planting or maintaining mangrove forests that mitigate coastal storm impacts to maintaining healthy hedgerow between farmlands. These represent minimal engineering intervention and encourage better use of (protected) natural environments.
  2. Innovative natural planning: sustainable management of ecosystems and landscapes, often associated with agro-ecology, natural systems agriculture and evolutionary-orientated forestry. For example, planners could assess and use existing agrobiodiversity to maintain and enhance natural connectivity and resiliency of landscapes; another example would be the deliberate introduction of genetic diversity to increase forest resilience to extreme events.
  3. Ecosystem management: this is the extensive design and management of ecosystems, and includes the creation and management of new or artificial ecosystems such as green roofs in urban environments. Such approaches are commonly associated with green and blue infrastructure development and are often applied to heavily degraded or polluted areas where extensive works are required.

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