The phrase “war on coal” is frequently brought up in political speeches. In particular, Republicans – ignoring or even denying climate change – like to claim that Barack Obama is waging a “war on coal” and on “safe, reliable energy.” But if there ever was a so-called “war on coal,” it started during the Bush Administration. Not George W. Bush; George H. W. Bush. After all, it was the first President Bush who signed the Clean Air Act amendments in November 1990 which addressed pollution controls at coal plants. That rule grandfathered many older coal plants, but it was a step in the right direction and led to major declines in harmful pollution.
George W. Bush tried to slow efforts towards greater regulation of mercury and of carbon emissions, but the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule developed by the EPA during his tenure, and finalized in 2011 (9 years behind schedule), forced all utility-scale coal plants to comply with mercury emissions. This led to increased costs on coal generators, especially those using coal with high mercury content, more common in Appalachian coal deposits. Appalachian coal mines went out of business because their coal deposits were too toxic when burned, and too expensive to clean up adequately.
Unlike what many Republicans believe, these policies affecting coal aren’t big government intrusions into big business. To the contrary, they are sensible moves away from high-polluting energy sources to cleaner, more efficient, and increasingly less expensive sources of energy. People living near coal plants are significantly harmed by their pollutants. Coal isn’t even an economic driver. To the contrary; the largest coal producers in the country for years, Kentucky and West Virginia, are two of the poorest states in the nation. As for its popularity, polls show that people don’t like coal, but just tolerate it as an antiquated part of our electric generation supply. That’s now changing.
Coal had been king for decades. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA), in the year 2000, coal was the primary source of electric power for 33 states, represented 51.7% of total U.S. electric generation. In 2015, coal was the primary source of electric power in only 21 states and made up 33% of total U.S. generation. This drop in coal generation is a relatively new phenomenon. Coal generation peaked only 9 years ago, in 2007! That year, more power was generated by coal (2,016 terrawatt-hours) than in any previous year. Coal made up 49.7% of total generation that year. Back then, 29 states still relied mostly on coal. Since then, coal generation has dropped by a third between 2007 and 2015 (source: EIA).
Maryland and Virginia are prime examples. In 2000, 57.6% of Maryland’s and 50.6% of Virginia’s electric generation was from coal. Maryland’s renewable energy generation, including hydro, was 4.5% and Virginia’s was 3%. In 2015, 38% of Maryland’s and 20.5% of Virginia’s electric generation was from coal, while renewables made up 8.2% of Maryland’s generation and 5.9% of Virginia’s (Source EIA).
Major signs that coal’s dominance was waning came in 2012. In that year, natural gas generation increased by nearly 21%, while coal generation dropped by nearly 13%. With natural gas prices dropping significantly, many utilities started using it as a fuel of choice. And while coal generation bounced back slightly in 2013 and 2014, it never fully recovered, especially as many older coal-fired power plants shut down due to age and due to the MATS rule.
Since the year 2000; 44 new large-scale coal-fired power plants have been built in the U.S, for a total of 21 GW, enough to power over 15 million homes. In the past few years, however, the building of new coal plants has basically come to a screeching halt. It doesn’t appear that any new large-scale coal plants will be built this decade. Since the year 2000 and through April 2016, 53 GW of coal generation have been retired. (source: EIA Database) In 2015, 42 of the 48 states that still burn coal for electric power saw generation from coal decline. (source: EIA)
Burning coal for electricity is a very dirty way to generate electricity. Not just in the combustion process, but in the mining and transit of coal, day in and day out, to plants across the country. Then there is the water contamination from coal mines, including coal deposits removed from mountain tops, and coal ash leaks into waterways (100 million gallons in Pennsylvania in 2005, 1.1 billion gallons in Tennessee in 2008 and 27 million gallons in the Dan River in North Carolina in 2014 to mention a few).
In stark contrast, wind turbines and solar panels are manufactured, shipped to the site, installed, and then generate power. There aren’t fuel supplies constantly moving to the site (other than sun and wind). The power produced is pollution free. Those conservatives who cite silly articles about how the materials used in solar panels are toxic and awful and produce more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels completely ignore the fact that many of those same materials are used in electronics, including the computer or cell phone they used to post such articles. In fact, life cycle emissions for wind, solar, and other renewable sources aren’t even close to coal.
Of course, baseload power is necessary to maintain reliability and voltage support on the nation’s electric grid. Coal and nuclear power plants historically have been the anchors of the nation’s electric system, maintaining a steady stream of electrons — day in, day out. Natural gas plants have served as the moderator, revving up when power demand spikes, and backing off when it doesn’t. Natural gas plants are paid not just for the power they generate, but for the reserve capacity they provide. That’s the only way they can economically stay in business.
Where available, hydroelectric power serves as a reliable energy source. Biomass and geothermal energy can also contribute. Wind and solar power are playing a new role as energy sources that can, at times, dominate the electric grid, replacing the need to rev up gas burners. They even cause coal plants to back off.
The challenge is that while coal-fired power plants are being shut down, the only other major baseload energy source, nuclear power, is fading fast. Already this decade, nuclear plants have closed in California, Florida, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Additional plant closures have been announced in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York over the next several years. The only reason the nuclear industry maintains relevance is that existing facilities have been upgraded to generate significantly more power.
Natural gas is becoming the replacement fuel of choice, increasing 35% since 2010. Gas-fired power generation was almost equal to coal-fired generation in 2015, and was the primary fuel for electric generation in 17 states. (source: EIA) Natural gas will be the primary fuel for U.S. electric generation in 2016 and for the foreseeable future.
But even that trend is changing. Where wind and solar power are booming, natural gas generation growth is being kept at bay. For example, California gas-fired power generation spiked in 2012 when the San Onofre nuclear plant was shut down (the plant had previously generated approximately 9% of California’s power), but has stayed flat and even gone down in with the rise in renewable energy. Through the first four months of 2016, gas-fired generation in California is down 12%, while wind and solar generation are up 25% (source: EIA).
Meanwhile, energy storage technology is becoming an alternative solution to meet peak power needs. The Tesla Power Wall is one idea of how to move power generation from the macro-grid to the micro-grid, and even to the home itself.
2016 is probably the first time since the nuclear age that we’ve seen such a dynamic shift in how our electricity is produced. Cleaner, more efficient, 21st-century technologies are winning, and the less efficient, high-polluting technologies are losing. That’s how technological advancement is supposed to work.
Here we see a major difference between Hillary Clinton and the Republicans. The Republicans support dirty coal, deny climate science and have been lukewarm at best on renewable energy and downright hostile at worst.
As for Donald Trump, we don’t really know where he stands on renewable energy sources, besides him saying they are “expensive”. Trump claims (absurdly) that he’ll protect coal jobs, and has been mostly positive on fossil fuels in general. In a June 28th fundraiser, the head of one of the largest coal mining companies in the country, Robert Murray, said that Donald Trump will be “good for coal…” and “…will be the best president of our lifetimes.” (source: SNL – subscription, quote referred to in Politico).
Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice Presidential pick, has a clear record of being pro-fossil fuels, anti-renewable, and anti-clean tech. Like Trump, Pence questions the existence of climate change. He voted against fuel efficiency standards for cars, against renewable energy tax credits, against ending subsidies for fossil fuels, and even overturned former Republican Governor Mitch Daniel’s energy efficiency program in Indiana. Not to mention that Pence received $300,000 from Koch Industries when he ran for Governor in 2012. (Sources: On the Issues and Reuters 7/15/2016)
When you get beyond all the white noise about Hillary Clinton, don’t forget that she supports the 21st-century energy strategy that has led to the boom in renewable energy over the past few years. She is on board with continuing the trajectory of clean energy growth for as long as she is in office. Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, on energy she is with the rational majority of Americans who believe in technological progress instead of the dark ages.
The 21st century is happening whether Donald Trump or the Republicans like it or not. But they will try as hard as they can to stop progress and go backwards in time if we let them.