The plant that lived twice

Published on Thursday, 21 July 2016

What do some of the world’s most visited art locations like the Tate Modern in London, the Central Tejo in Lisbon or the CaixaForum in Madrid have in common? All of them were once power stations that, having ceased production, now serve a different function. Where once turbines and alternators could be found, now we can admire expressionist paintings and Hellenistic sculptures.

The European energy sector has undergone profound changes in recent years, with stagnating consumption, growing competition from renewables and urgent calls for low carbon development in order to combat climate change. Enel has responded by launching the Futur-e project, a programme to repurpose 23 obsolete thermal power plants (with a total installed capacity of 13 GW) with the participation of local communities. This is not the end, then, but a rebirth for these once vital industrial sites that have run the course of their usefulness. They will now be transformed into shopping centres or dedicated as high tech, cultural or science hubs.

The international news agency Bloomberg News has cited Enel as the first company in the world to have developed a plan for an entire fleet of plants. Interviewed on Futur-e by Bloomberg, Head of Global Thermal Generation Enel Enrico Viale explained that ‘where you can continue to produce energy in other ways, we are ready to start converting. If the new destination should not be generation then it does not fall within our field.’ One of the possible paths for some of the sites, Viale speculates, ‘is logistics. All systems are connected to the electricity network and the data network and have outlets on the waterways. Some are by the sea and are equipped with docks.’

Futur-e stands as a forerunner of a strategy global strategy. According to data from the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, 236 thermal power plants in the United States already have an end date for operations. The United Kingdom has promised to close all its coal-fired power plants by 2025, while China is already committed to shutting down its polluting power plants located in urban areas.

The closing down of these plants – whose total value is estimated at over $ 5 billion – is an essential step towards achieving the emission reduction targets set by the COP21 in Paris (the United Nations Conference on Climate Change) and a development opportunity for the regions in which plants are sited. ‘We have grown together, and we have built a lasting relationship with the community,’ Viale concluded. ‘We therefore have a duty to return the site as it was before the construction of the plant, or to offer a new perspective for the future.’