Local

TransAlta unveils plans for largest solar project in state at site of former coal mine

An active open pit coal mine at TransAlta is seen in this 2004 file photo. The area has been replanted and returned to pasture in the years since the mine closed, and now TransAlta intends to turn the area into a massive solar energy project that when complete would be the largest in the state.
An active open pit coal mine at TransAlta is seen in this 2004 file photo. The area has been replanted and returned to pasture in the years since the mine closed, and now TransAlta intends to turn the area into a massive solar energy project that when complete would be the largest in the state. The Chronicle (Centralia)

The former site of a coal mine could be producing solar power by the end of 2020, according to plans unveiled Tuesday by electricity provider TransAlta.

The Calgary-based company has owned the site just south of Bucoda since 2000. The mine shut down in 2006, with reclamation work beginning the following year to restore it to forest and pasture land. Now, TransAlta believes it’s a prime location for its solar project.

The plan, if approved, would be the largest solar project in Washington, entailing 300 jobs during construction and creating four permanent solar technician jobs. It’s expected to generate 180 megawatts of electricity, a figure that could change as plans adapt.

“The location is good because it’s close to transmission lines,” TransAlta lead developer Ryan Schmidt told locals in attendance at the presentation at Centralia College. “We know exactly what’s in the ground, because we put it there when we reclaimed the site.”

Those advantages, as well as the existing facilities on the site, make the project viable, he said, even if it won’t be able to generate as much power as solar farms in sunnier locales. Utilities and corporate buyers “have goals for local power,” Schmidt said, meaning they’re willing to buy electricity from nearby providers even if it’s slightly more expensive than providers in Nevada or Southern California.

“Our goal is to work on our costs steadily, so that maybe we can be close enough,” he added. “Someone will say, ‘You know what? I want to go local, even if there’s a cheaper option in Southern California.’ … If you can close that gap enough, you’re going to get a customer.”

TransAlta is currently working on getting permits from Thurston County before lining up a contract to sell its power. It will need to be approved for land conversion, getting the site rezoned from its current forest designation, as well as the special use permit that allows the solar farm to be built. Given the company’s longtime ownership of the property, Schmidt said, “we think we’ve got a strong set of facts to present about the site.”

The project has been dubbed Tono Solar, an homage to the ghost town that once occupied the site. The solar farm will occupy close to 1,000 acres.

The company’s plan, if it gets the permits it needs, is to spend this summer preparing the site for construction, then get a contract in place to begin building in 2019. Operation would start in the fourth quarter of 2020. The solar farm would have an expected lifespan of 25-30 years.

TransAlta has historically been known as a coal-heavy supplier, but the solar farm is the latest step in the company’s public efforts to move toward renewable energy. By 2030, the company announced last year, it plans to have completely eliminated coal from its arsenal. TransAlta currently gets 57 percent of its net generation capacity from coal.

In Washington, the company is in the process of shutting down its Centralia coal power plant, with one burner shutting down in 2020 and the remaining one being eliminated in 2025. That’s part of a 2011 deal reached with the state, following legislation requiring the phaseout of the plant.

The company is currently evaluating whether to convert its first shuttered boiler to natural gas production, a decision that will become clearer based on the demand for natural gas power closer to 2021.

If the plan goes forward, it will be the “spearpoint” of TransAlta’s long-term plans for the region.

“Centralia is definitely our U.S. home base for the company,” Schmidt said. “It’s extremely important to us to develop a future at Centralia. … There’s a lot of land (at the mine site). This is just the beginning of what the future of Centralia (power) generation will be. There will be more coming.”

  Comments