The coal refuse to energy industry represents a unique paradigm for mine land reclamation in which environmental and economic objectives overlap. By removing coal refuse piles from the environment, reclaiming the sites to productive uses and using the coal refuse as an alternative fuel for the production of electricity, the coal refuse to energy industry provides a range of environmental, economic and societal benefits to the state of Pennsylvania.
Because of the costs associated with the removal of coal refuse and fiscal constraints governing public funding, the threats posed by these piles are mostly backburner issues for government authorities unless or until the mounds suddenly combust and become an immediate health and safety threat to nearby residents.
Prior to the development of circulating fluidized bed (CFB) technology, there was no productive use for coal refuse. As a result, these hazardous piles littered the local landscapes and polluted nearby land and water for decades.
During the 1970s, U.S. Congress sought to diversify the nation’s electric generation mix by promoting the use of alternative fuels. Toward this end, Congress enacted the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA). PURPA required that electric utilities buy alternative energy generated by qualified facilities at an “avoided cost” rate. The avoided cost mandate proved instrumental in encouraging developers to invest in what was then “new and risky” business ventures like generating electricity from coal refuse through the use of the innovative CFB technology. As a result of fortuitous timing between maturation of the CFB process and the passage of PURPA, a new technology was established providing both economic value in the productive burning of coal refuse and environmental service through the removal of the piles and reclamation of the sites.
In the ensuing years, the plants that currently make up Pennsylvania’s coal refuse to energy industry have removed and burned as fuel more than 225 million tons of refuse, improved or restored more than 1,200 miles of stream and reclaimed more than 7,200 acres of abandoned mine lands (AML) through the use of beneficial ash. In addition to these environmental benefits, the industry also provides much needed employment opportunities and a solid economic impact to Pennsylvania’s rural communities. The industry directly and indirectly supports thousands of high value family sustaining jobs, ranging from mining, transportation, plant operations and management to environmental remediation.
For further details, click here to view ARIPPA’s published comprehensive environmental and economic analysis of the coal refuse to energy industry’s value to the Commonwealth.