Re-powering Coal: Scaling Up the Clean Energy Transition (Podcast Transcript)

Co-host Anna speaks with Megan Pulliam, Chief Development Officer at TerraPraxis, a nonprofit focused on climate action, hard-to-decarbonize markets, and increased clean energy access. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

[Anna:] Today we’re getting into the clean energy transition. Specifically, how important it is for the world to get off coal– the dirtiest, deadliest energy source of all– and for us to get on way more nuclear power, which is actually some of the cleanest, safest energy out there.

I’m so excited to have Megan Pullium, Chief Development Officer at Terra Praxis, with us today to talk about their Repowering Coal Initiative, which aims to convert the world’s 2,400 coal plants to nuclear. Welcome to the podcast, Megan. Let’s start with a little bit of what you do at Terra Praxis, and what made you wanna work with them.

[Megan:] Thank you, Anna. It’s so great to be here. Like you said, I’m the Chief Development Officer at Terra Praxis. We are powered by philanthropy, so I have the honor of working with our individuals, foundations, and government donors. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with numerous nonprofits across almost every sector, ranging from theater to healthcare to religion. 

Before I joined Terra Praxis, I really wanted to do something that was gonna have a scalable impact. And so I was really loving the work that I was doing specific to local communities in the northeast of the United States. But I was thinking, like, what if I could do something that would be bigger? And that would impact instead of maybe a thousand kids at a school, it would impact billions of kids and future generations? 

And so when I learned about Terra Praxis, I was just like, ‘Wow, I can’t think of a more important thing to be working on’. What makes Terra Praxis unique and what excites me the most is that we’re focused on unsolved areas of the climate challenge– looking kind of where other people aren’t, and looking at the biggest risks for the energy transition that if they go unaddressed, we’re really doomed to fail. And how can we build, you know, bipartisan bridges and coalitions around a just transition, reusing existing infrastructure, without requiring on individual behavior change? 

That theory of change is what really excited me because I was like, ‘Okay, this is something that can scale’. Like, this is the way that I think we need to focus on climate change.

[Anna:] Absolutely. I mean, solving climate change literally depends on our ability to scale up all the solutions that we need, and repowering coal is a big one. So I kind of wanna back up a bit and talk about coal for a minute, to kind of set the stage for going into the specifics of the Terra Praxis Repowering Coal Initiative.

So we all know coal is dirty. It pollutes the air and water and soil, and that pollution kills people. Coal is responsible for millions of premature deaths per year, from asthma to heart disease to cancer. And yet coal still makes up about a third of the world’s energy mix. 

So why is it that coal is still used so much if it’s so bad for us? Why is coal this sort of unsolved area of climate, like you were saying?

[Megan:] It’s a great question, and coal is just one of the most important energy sources today, even noting all those really negative impacts, and that’s because coal throughout history has been critical to economic growth, bringing billions of people out of poverty worldwide. And still today it’s helping to lift millions of people out of poverty in places like Asia and Africa, where increasing populations and rising standards of living and industrialization are causing more coal plants to be built each year than are being shut down. 

So even though many developed countries are calling for mandates to phase out coal use– that was a big outcome of COP26 in 2021– right now we’re in an energy crisis where politicians are having to choose between providing electricity and heat to their constituents, as well as jobs and tax revenues, and the larger economic benefits of these power plants, versus meeting decarbonization goals. So that’s kind of where Terra Praxis is coming in [by] designing a fast, low-cost, and repeatable system for replacing coal power plants with clean energy.

[Anna:] Such a cool idea, and so needed. So how exactly does it work? 

How do you convert coal to nuclear?

[Megan:] Yeah, so what makes the Terra Praxis model unique is we are trying to design [an] approach that can maintain the use of the existing infrastructure that already exists. So instead of, you know, completely knocking something down and starting from scratch, we’re designing a system where you could simply replace the coal-fired boiler with a new heat source such as a small modular [nuclear] reactor. So it’d be a new source of clean steam, instead of the dirty coal-generated steam, that would spin the existing steam turbines. And you could reuse the existing cooling systems and grid connections. 

And so what’s critical about that approach? It means that these coal plants can maintain operation; they can maintain the important energy they’re providing. You know, they’re fueling not only homes, but other industries that rely on this energy. That can all maintain operation and the existing workforces who know how to run a power plant can continue their jobs almost as usual, in some regards. And then of course there will be many new green jobs that are created and will be working with communities and local community colleges and other organizations to ensure that there are opportunities for job training and upskilling as that will be an important piece of this as well. 

The United States Department of Energy recently published a report on repowering coal plants with nuclear that featured Terra Praxis, and it concluded that in one of their sample regions, by replacing a coal plant with nuclear, it would increase almost 275 million dollars in economic activity to the region and add 650 new permanent jobs.

[Anna:] Wow, that’s huge. Yeah, when we’re talking about the clean energy transition, we have to remember it needs to be a just transition, right? We can’t leave people behind. And it sounds like nuclear is such a good fit for replacing coal, at least in part because of the way it produces electricity– it’s basically the same, you know, creating heat to power a turbine. It’s just a lot cleaner.

I guess I’m wondering why nuclear? Why not solar or wind? 

I’m sure reliability is probably a big factor here. Like, I know nuclear plants operate at full capacity way more than any other energy source.

[Megan:] You’re right. Spot on. That reliability is really important, and especially as we think about climate change and how that’s warming our planet– there’s just gonna be more demand for energy, 24 hours a day.

People who listen to this podcast probably know that we have until 2050 to replace fossil fuels and also double our energy supply to meet up with global energy demand. Still today, 600 million people lack basic electricity to power their lives. So we’re really gonna need a huge amount of clean energy.

We were talking to one coal plant utility in Arizona and they need to be able to have air conditioning during the summer all hours of the day. When it’s dark outside, although they have so much sun, to be able to store that electricity with a battery produced by solar, to replace their coal plant– they’re just looking at that not being economically sustainable. And so that is one reason why a community might choose nuclear energy instead of, you know, wind or solar. 

Also, some areas of the world just might not have enough wind or sun. And so nuclear energy is a really natural choice, because it requires a fraction of the land. It’s the most dense energy known to humanity, so that means it requires a really small amount of space to produce a ton of energy. So that has the added benefit of not destroying local ecosystems and biodiversity. There’s already a lot of moratoriums we’re seeing on [the] construction of wind and solar just because of how much land it consumes. Places like the south-central United States, where most of these coal plants are, are densely populated regions of the country, and to replace the coal would potentially be, you know, taking up the entire open land surrounding that area. 

So when we’re thinking about what is one of the most sustainable sources of energy, it’s actually nuclear. The United Nations recognizes that. The European Union Sustainability Framework recognizes that nuclear is a sustainable source of energy. But with mainstream thinking of how we build nuclear power plants today, it’s a very bespoke process, designing for one plant at a time. You know, it can take 10 years and billions of dollars. And knowing that there’s 2,400 coal plants around the world, that conventional way of thinking is not gonna have an impact.

So we believe that replacing coal plants with advanced nuclear energy would be able to provide an affordable and reliable and emissions-free source of energy to billions of people worldwide, and improve [the] health of communities. Not to mention it would also enable the current communities to maintain the economic benefits that they have from these power plants.

[Anna:] Yeah, let’s dive into that a bit more. So you mentioned jobs earlier. 

What are some other economic benefits that people can expect to see with the coal-to-nuclear transformation– and beyond the economy, what are the benefits to people’s health?

[Megan:] Yeah, so this opportunity, in addition to jobs, we believe that it will also create a lot of investment opportunities in communities. Big corporations like Microsoft have said that they are going to, by 2030, run on 24/7 clean energy for their data centers and operations and things like that. Big corporations are looking for sources of clean energy, so we believe that, economically, it definitely can revitalize communities. And also, health-wise, nuclear energy is one of the safest sources of energy. It’s actually something like 350 times safer than coal. 

[Anna:] Yeah, I’ve seen the scientific reporting that coal ash is actually a hundred times more radioactive than nuclear waste.

[Megan:] That’s correct. Absolutely. And so in addition to having emissions-free energy, it will also dramatically reduce air pollution, the contamination to the ground and the water– all those negative health impacts that communities are experiencing will be eliminated. And these projects, of course, will have a really major role in helping remediate the harm that has already been done, and ensuring that cleanup occurs. 

[Anna:] That is really good to hear. You know, [this] is making me think of Germany, and how much of a coal mess they’re gonna have to clean up because they’re shutting down nuclear. They just shut down their last three nuclear plants recently. 

[Megan:] Yeah, and new studies are showing [that] by doing that, and having to switch back to coal, they’re actually gonna cause an excess of 800 more deaths per year than would have occurred if they had just kept their nuclear power plants running.

[Anna:] Yeah, I think it really goes to show, again, nuclear is far safer than coal. We need more of it, not less. I’m also thinking of Indonesia, because I know they have a lot of coal there and have recently committed to phasing it down. But there are these loopholes where pre-planned projects are still happening. I feel like what’s lacking is political will, per usual– but I’m curious, how is Terra Praxis approaching this problem?

[Megan:] Yeah, so Indonesia is definitely somewhere that we’re actively working with partners, because we think that they would be a really great candidate for repowering coal plants. Terra Praxis’ model is, we’re looking to create a fast, low-cost, and repeatable deployment model for repowering coal plants that will work everywhere in the world– taking this knowledge and how can it be applied to low- and middle-income countries to help support their energy transitions? Because right now they might be, you know, building new coal plants ‘cos of energy demand but could we, you know, leapfrog that? 

We could have them start with some of these projects where it’s, you know, coal to nuclear, or even just nuclear, but using a design for manufacture and assembly, and standardized approach, so that they can achieve the benefits a lot faster. And so that they don’t have to, you know, go through the mistakes that a lot of developed countries had to do with coal, and all the terrible health impacts. Could they just leapfrog to these new clean energy sources? 

That’s where Terra Praxis is coming in with our world-class sustainability experts, with regulators and heat source vendors and governments and industry leaders, to design a rapid deployment model for repowering coal plants with nuclear so that it actually can, you know, have the impact we need it to in the near term and not, you know, one plant is done every 10 years.

And so we’re using philanthropy to really incubate this vision so that it can get picked up in the market and have the support of policy that, you know, enables that to happen. And how can we figure out how this can all be financed? That’s the work that we’re doing by conducting feasibility studies with different countries around the world, to be able to further define the political, social, and economic requirements to enable this vision to happen. 

Knowing that there’s 2,400 coal plants worldwide, that means we need to be doing hundreds of projects per year. With coal being responsible for almost a third of all our global carbon emissions, if we don’t come up with a practical and viable solution, we’re on a road to catastrophic climate change in this century. And we know that the current kind of solution, which was ‘let’s just shut them down’, is not gonna happen, because we need to replace that energy with something new, and something better. And we have to do it quickly.

And so that’s really what we’re trying to achieve.