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This coal plant closed–now it’s being converted to a solar-powered neighborhood

The energy company that once burned coal on the site in England now wants to show it can prepare for a new energy economy.

This coal plant closed–now it’s being converted to a solar-powered neighborhood
[Photo: courtesy Engie]

A little more than two years ago, as the market for coal kept collapsing, a 1-gigawatt coal plant in the U.K. town of Rugeley was one of many that closed around the world. Now, the utility company that owns the site plans to transform it into something quite different: sustainably powered housing.

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“Rapid change within the energy industry has meant a transition to a lower carbon, flexible, and more decentralized model for power generation,” says Niel Scott, a spokesman for Engie, the France-based utility that owns the coal plant. (The company, formerly called Gaz de France Suez, changed its name in 2015 to reflect its own move away from fossil fuels.) “We were inspired by the possibility to ourselves lead the transformation of a site associated with a more carbon-intensive era of energy generation into a new chapter of use as one of the most efficient, low-carbon redevelopment projects in the U.K.”

[Image: courtesy Engie]

The mixed-use development, on 139 acres, still needs to go through a community planning process in 2019. But it may include more than 2,000 new homes running on renewable electricity, at least half of which can be generated with on-site solar panels and stored in batteries. Heat will come from geothermal heat pumps. An efficient design will make it possible for the homes to use only about a third as much energy as a typical new house. At least 30% of the homes will be affordable. The development will also include commercial buildings.

Another energy company might have decided to sell the property. Engie saw it as an opportunity to showcase its ability to produce clean energy. The project “will be the first instance of a major energy company repurposing its own site in this way,” says Scott. “We also believe that in the future, energy will increasingly be embedded in buildings and places–from batteries and [solar] to microgrids in neighborhoods and the integration of an electric vehicle infrastructure.”

In 2017, the company acquired one arm of a home-building and retrofitting company called Keepmoat that has experience in building zero-carbon houses. Since buildings are a major source of energy use, Engie saw it as a natural acquisition as it works on the transition to a lower-carbon economy. The company is also beginning to work with cities to help them shape the future use of developments and public spaces. “We see this type of activity as an extension of provision of energy-related services for our customers,” Scott says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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