By some estimates, the mine fire under Centralia, Pennsylvania will burn for another 250 years. That’s a lot more heat, smoke, and steam!
Seeing this future, a few enterprising individuals have suggested that the fire might be harnessed and turned into something more productive – like electricity. While this is a fascinating proposition, there are significant obstacles that stand in the way of such a project ever getting off the ground.
First and foremost, the borough of Centralia is presently under the control of the State of Pennsylvania. It has been so since it was acquired through eminent domain in 1993. This makes it difficult for any private company to come in, purchase the land, and begin a power generation project.
Second, the fire is a moving target. Power generation requires a consistent, reliable source of energy – like sun or nuclear fuel. Since the fire began in 1962, the burn zone has moved thousands of feet to the west, east, and south. Any project to capture its heat, would have to follow the path of the fire, which is traveling at approximately 75 feet per year.
Third, power generated through superheated steam requires water. This is why the majority of power plants are located near large bodies of water such as rivers and oceans. Centralia, PA is situated on top of a mountain. The only significant sources of water up there are buried deep within the ground.
Fourth and most importantly, the financial returns on such a project would have to outweigh the initial money invested. Digging hundreds of feet underground in order heat pipes of water would certainly be costly. Electricity is sold for relatively cheap in the United States. This doesn’t provide much confidence that a hypothetical power plant would generate much of a profit.
Centralia, Pennsylvania still has enough coal under the town to keep the mine fire burning for a few more centuries. That said, using it to generate power doesn’t appear particularly feasible or economical.