Identifying Coal Power Plants Using Google Earth

Guest Blog | December 24, 2012 | Coal, Energy Policy

This blog is the first in a series on ways to identify power sources in Google Earth. To use all the features discussed in these blogs, download Google Earth, here.

Have you ever been driving around, seen some sort of big, smokey, factory-looking thing (technical, I know) and wondered, “Hey, what is that?” Well Google Earth can usually help narrow down some suspects – especially with power plants. Coal power plants are probably the easiest to identify in Google Earth. Generally, coal plants have four major features that are pretty easily identifiable – a huge coal pile, smoke stacks (you usually have to look for the shadows cast by these towers), a major water body nearby (for making steam, cooling the steam, and transporting coal), and a generation station.

In addition to finding the actual power plants, you can also find coal mines. Finding coal mines is fairly easy in West Virginia and Wyoming. Just about anywhere that you see a discolored location that isn’t green and mountainous anymore is either a result of coal mining or a small town. Here’s an image from a tour created by Appalachian Voices of a coal mine in West Virginia (download the tour here):

In addition to self-sleuthing, Google Earth has some promoted “tours” and other materials that you can download. Open Google Earth, click on “Layers” in the lower left hand corner (if it’s not open already), then click on “Earth Gallery” and do a search. For example, you can check out the Coal River Wind tour. Just search for “Coal River Wind” in the Google Earth Earth Gallery. The tour takes you through West Virginia’s mountain top coal removal activities, and the group’s innovative approach to stopping this extremely destructive form of mining.

Another interactive online mapping tool was just launched earlier this month by SACE’s coal team: This new website helps citizens identify whether or not they live near a coal ash impoundment and what that site’s corresponding EPA Hazard Rating is. Visitors can click on the Power Plant Details tab below the map to find out even more information on that particular facility, including whether or not there are known toxic contamination problems from leaks at a site. We plan on developing a Google Earth file next year for people to download and use to get even more interactivity on finding coal ash impoundments in the region.


If you’re feeling very adventuresome, you can do a web search for Google Earth files that you can play with. Google Earth runs files with the *.KMZ or *.KML extension (which is at the END of the file name; for example, this file, which you can download, includes data from the EPA’s 2007 Toxics Release Inventory for Louisiana: So, just do a web search for whatever you’re looking for, plus KMZ or KML in the search bar. You’ll likely have to download the KMZ or KML file to your desktop and then RIGHT CLICK on the file, select “Open With” and “Google Earth” – that should open your file.

Stay tuned and check out our other blogs in the coming weeks on identifying nuclear reactors, wind farms and other power stations in Google Earth.

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