Coal plants have fallen out of public favor – to put it lightly -- because of their significant contributions to climate change and public health problems.
But there is no denying their contributions to urban development and industrial history in the U.S. and Europe. The same goes for coal mines that provide fuel for the plants and coking operations that bake coal into the denser fuel needed for steel mills.
Whether they are still spewing pollution or standing derelict and overgrown by weeds, these coal-related structures are rich with stories: of man’s audacious struggles to build skyscrapers and light up cities, of brave and brawny workers often toiling under shocking conditions. Not to mention the mind-bending questions and concerns raised by a society so reliant on extracting and burning this fossil fuel from deep in the earth.
At least these are the impressions I often get when exploring operating and defunct coal mines, power plants and infrastructure in the U.S. and on a recent trip to Germany and the United Kingdom (as a climate media fellow for the Heinrich Boell Foundation North America).
As coal plants close across the U.S., including two plants in Chicago, planners, residents, environmentalists and amateur historians are debating what should be done with the sites. In Chicago there is much enthusiasm for preserving elements of the recently-closed Fisk and Crawford plants and also the State Line Power Station just across the border in Northwest Indiana, which closed in February. Currently it does not appear significant preservation of the buildings as museums or monuments is likely, perhaps because such conversions would require significant investment without promising returns.
But the conversion of coal and nuclear plants, coking works and coal mines into tourist attractions and cultural centers in Germany and England offers some inspiration for American cities.
In London, the Tate Modern art museum is housed in the former Bankside Power Station, fired by coal and then oil and known as a “cathedral of power” until its closing in 1981. When the Tate Modern opened in 2000, it reportedly brought about 3,000 jobs and a new identity to an economically struggling neighborhood.
And the former Battersea coal-fired power plant also on the banks of the River Thames, made famous on the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “Animals,” is slated for an £8 billion upscale residential and commercial redevelopment by a Malaysian investment firm that bought it after a showdown with the Chelsea Football Club, which was also interested in purchasing the hulking structure. After the plant’s closure in 1975 a community group was convened to help decide its fate, including to make sure that locals benefited from any jobs created and weren’t overly harmed by increased traffic or other impacts of redevelopment.
Previous plans had called for turning Battersea into a hub for renewable energy generation or a theme park celebrating England’s industrial history.
At the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield amongst the coal field communities of Yorkshire, England, former miners lead tours of the sprawling underground Caphouse Colliery mine, which is now outfitted with life-size statues and real mining machinery, providing a window into mining techniques and working conditions through the ages.
Yorkshire has suffered severe economic decline since most of the coal mines and related operations closed in the 1980s and 1990s. But the mining museum provides some jobs, draws tourists from around England and abroad and offers extensive educational programs for local schools. Museum deputy director Willy McGranahan, a former miner himself, noted that it is an important way for school children to learn about the industry that shaped their region and their personal family histories, but has now largely faded away.
In the Ruhr region in Germany known for coal mining, coal-fired power plants and steel and other industries powered by coal, former coal sites have been turned into museums and cultural centers.
For example, the Zollverein mine and coking plant is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The former coal wash houses and other industrial buildings now house historical and modern art museums, small galleries and venues for corporate conferences, weddings and the like. The cooling towers, coking ovens and other infrastructure are preserved for visitors from around the world to wander. On a September afternoon as thunderheads and rainbow fragments created an otherworldly backdrop to Zollverein’s towering steel cylinders and conveyors, it was hosting a business conference related to renewable energy.
Meanwhile a nuclear plant in Kalkar, Germany, which was built but never actually operated, was transformed into a popular amusement park complete with a merry-go-round inside a cooling tower – an idea also conceivable for old coal plants. Kalkar Wunderland reportedly attracts more than half a million visitors a year.
About a decade ago. Chicago’s Southeast Environmental Task Force and other local leaders tried to turn the skeleton of the Acme coking plant -- once part of Chicago’s proud steel industry -- into a museum. But despite valiant efforts to raise funds and support, the plan fizzled and the structure was demolished.
As U.S. cities continue to modernize and phase out archaic industry and power generation, relics like coking plants and old coal plants will become increasingly rare. As residents of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood who have railed angrily against the coal plant in their midst for years say, this could be a crucial time to enshrine memories of our energy past even as we look to a cleaner energy future.