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The Year for Big Coal – Not So Big

Bill DiBenedetto | Wednesday January 2nd, 2013 | 2 Comments

Navajo power plantActually, it was big in the sense of big losses and setbacks for the coal industry’s agenda and that, in certain quarters, made it a very good year indeed.

When thousands of people showed up at the Seattle Convention Center for a technical “scoping” hearing to comment on and protest plans to export coal through Pacific Northwest terminals to Asian markets – the battle to derail those proposals swelled. And Big Coal’s master export plan is in doubt.

One coal plant each week was retired during 2012, which perhaps helps to explain why there is such eagerness to ship the stuff overseas.

The Sierra Club’s nationwide campaign—Beyond Coal—to phase out coal burning in the United States won victories from coast to coast, including the coal plant retirements and record investments in wind and solar. The coal industry experienced numerous setbacks in 2012 as its market share fell and stock prices tanked.

“With an overarching goal to move America off coal and slash carbon pollution, an unprecedented coalition including Sierra Club and more than a hundred local, regional and national organizations has helped to secure the largest drop in U.S. coal burning ever,” the club said in its year-end review.

The campaign, which received major backing with a four-year $50 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2011, now includes legal and grassroots battles that target every stage of the coal lifecycle in more than 40 states. It has grown to become one of the largest and broadest grassroots environmental campaigns in the nation’s history, according to the club.

Many investors lost big on coal, with numerous bankruptcies of coal mining companies and coal-burning utilities including Midwest Generation in Illinois, Patriot in West Virginia, and Dynegy in Texas. After declaring bankruptcy, Patriot – Appalachia’s third largest coal company – reached an agreement with the Sierra Club and its allies to end the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining and retire much of its large scale surface mining equipment. Coal’s poor economics were underscored by news that the Great River Energy Spiritwood coal plant in North Dakota has sat idle since it was completed at a cost of $440 million earlier this year.

NRG Texas Energy announced this month that it will not proceed with plans to build the Limestone 3 coal unit in Jewett, Texas, 120 miles south of Dallas. NRG filed the initial applications to build the plant in 2006, when a handful of other Texas utilities were filing similar proposals to build more than a dozen new coal boilers in Texas. As of December 2012, the majority of these proposals have been cancelled, due to the changing economics of coal plants, the growth of wind energy in the state, and because of legal challenges and grassroots opposition.

Coal in 2012: By the numbers

  • 0 new coal plants broke ground for the the third year in a row.
  • 0 new coal export facilities broke ground in the Pacific Northwest (at least not yet anyway, as the jury is still out on this – 2013 will tell the tale).
  • 13 proposed coal plants were abandoned or defeated.
  • 54 coal plants retired or announced retirement, with a total of 126 coal plants that have announced retirement since January 2010.
  • 18,789 megawatts of coal retired or planning to retire, with a total of 46,904 megawatts retired or planning to retire since January 2010
  • 90 percent of mercury pollution from existing coal plants – the nation’s biggest source of mercury pollution – will be eliminated, thanks to national mercury protections finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency this year.
  • 1,992 megwatts of solar power has been installed as of September 2012 – bringing the total amount of solar operating in the U.S. to 5,900 megawatts.
  • 4,728 megawatts of wind power has been installed through Sept 2012 – an increase of 40 percent from Sept 2011. In total, there is now 51,630 megawatts of wind power operating in the U.S.
  • 12 million homes – about 10 percent of the country – could be powered by the amount of solar and wind generated in the first nine months of 2012 alone.
  • 13,872 workers added to the solar industry in 2012 – a growth of 13.2 percent over 2011.
  • 8 percent decrease in overall electric sector carbon dioxide emissions – a twenty year low in U.S. carbon emissions – mainly due to a decline in coal-fired generation.
  • 38 percent of overall electricity generation provided by coal through September 2012, a historic decline from 50 percent less than five years ago.
  • 10,000+ citizens turned out to oppose new coal export facilities in the Northwest.
  • 1,773,027 emails and comments sent calling on EPA and national leaders to curb coal plant pollution and invest in clean energy.

Coal is on the run and battling on many fronts – 2012 may turn out to be a watershed year in its downward spiral. This is the type of momentum that can’t be reversed – can it?

Image: Navajo power plant by bass_nroll via Flickr CC


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  • Bruce Nilles

    Looking forward to 2013 being the year that we accelerate this trend (the demise of coal), not go into reverse. It was a very helpful step for Congress to extend the major program for wind development for another two years on January 1. Wind already beats new coal and gas head to head, and with the federal wind program extended, and activists fighting coal plants in 40 states, coal’s days are numbered. The trick is to make sure it is soon enough to prevent runaway global warming and that we don’t simply offshore our coal for other countries to burn as we close our domestic coal plants.

  • NWEric

    Shipping Montana’s federally subsidized coal to the Pacific coast to send on Asia to be burned by our competitors and further accelerate climate change requires some very convoluted logic to justify. .