If you were only paying attention to public statements coming from Washington D.C., you would likely think that in the almost two years since Donald Trump became President that coal has seen a magnificent revival. Trump has been consistently pro-coal and anti-climate, starting with his decision to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement. His proposal to replace President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan - with rules rolling back pollution controls to benefit coal generation - could kill as many as 1,400 additional people a year.
In reality, what’s happening outside the beltway is completely different. As it turns out, the markets and science matter more than Trump’s rhetoric, and energy companies across the country are continuing to shut down coal plants in favor of moving toward more renewables, just as they were before the 2016 election.
“Coal plants are retiring at the same rough rate under Trump that they were under Obama,” said Mary-Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “That’s because the decisions about individual coal plants and whether to retire them are not decisions that Donald Trump gets to make.”
This trend will only continue. In June 2018 a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted that coal’s share in the U.S. power mix will fall in half by 2040 and that almost two-thirds of the national fleet of coal-powered plants will be retired by that year, adding in a statement that “economic realities over the next two decades will not favor it in the power mix.” In a more recent update, they now predict that 2018 will be a record year for coal plant retirements domestically.
So what’s driving this? Two things, really. One is action at the state and local level, where policies like renewable energy standards, 100 percent clean energy commitments, and pollution regulations are pushing utilities to move away from coal. The most ambitious, and far reaching of these was a bill recently passed in California that mandates 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, meaning the country’s most populous state – and the world’s sixth largest economy – will be completely coal-free.
Another emerging trend is that renewables are becoming a viable alternative, and are sometimes cheaper electricity sources than fossil fuels. This is important, because for many years, it was natural gas that was replacing coal. While natural gas does have a lower carbon footprint in electricity generation (which could be negated by methane leakage at gas drilling or fracking sites), it’s still a fossil fuel and far dirtier than solar or wind. Now, clean energy is able to compete with not only coal, but gas as well.
“In just about every state in the country, when utilities go out and look for alternatives to coal plants, they are increasing finding that renewables are cheaper than running their existing coal plants,” said Hitt.
One example of this took place in Indiana – not far from coal country, where the utility NIPSCO has a tentative plan to replace all of its coal-fired plants within a decade, and according to Hitt, a study by the utility found that renewables would be the cheapest replacement.
Also important is the role of public-private commitments and partnerships like America’s Pledge, a network in which ”states, cities, businesses, universities, and citizens are taking action to fight climate change, grow the economy, and protect public health.” And, at the local level, climate is not a partisan issue as it in Washington. Take, for example, San Diego’s Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer, who pushed a 100 percent clean energy law that was the strongest in the country – even more so than cities with Democratic leadership.
This action is good. But increasingly, we’re being told by scientists that we’re not moving fast enough. We need to shift from coal and natural gas to clean energy even faster than we currently are. That’s why, in the end, while states, cities, and energy companies are still acting, the administration's efforts could have a negative impact in achieving broader climate action goals. Some planned effort could even make things worse – for example, the attempt to bailout of the coal industry, which was thankfully shelved, might have forced utilities to keep coal plants open in order to receive federal funding.
“These repeated attempts to bail out coal industry, or the rollbacks of our clean air, water, climate safeguards, are is a very real threat to this progress,” said Hitt. “We need to be fighting back against these rollbacks.”
This gets to a core problem – we already know that renewables can compete, and soon, will beat coal and other fossil fuels when the playing field is level. But the market isn’t fair, as we are still giving massive amounts of taxpayer money to the coal industry. These policies distort the market and make it harder to make the switch to clean energy we need in order to meet science-based climate change pollution reduction targets. And, as the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated,
“That means we need to speed up our transition from coal by passing more laws like California, and less backward thinking regulations against the climate and environment like what’s been coming out of DC for the past few years. It’s time to ramp up the shift from coal to renewables. Not look to return to a dirty past.”Image credit: Greg Goebel/Flickr