January 31, 2018 Read More →

Commentary: 4 Strikes on Coal

Vox:

At the Department of Energy, Rick Perry tried and failed to engineer a ham-handed intervention into energy markets to boost coal and nuclear. At the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke is shrinking national monuments to allow coal mines to be built closer to them. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt is repealing the Clean Power Plan (Obama’s carbon regulations on power plants) and seeking the weakest possible replacement. The list goes on.

All the momentum is in the other direction. To wit: An October report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “the share of US electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2016 — an unprecedented change.”

There are still hundreds of plants in operation in the US, producing roughly a third of US power, but one in four of those plants is slated to retire or shift to natural gas, and another 17 percent beyond that are uneconomic, running only by virtue of being shielded from competition. As Department of Energy data shows, after a brief bump last year, US coal has resumed its inexorable decline.

New symbols of that decline are coming at such a torrid pace these days that they are getting difficult to keep up with — new policies, new milestones, new reports, all pointing in the same direction. Here are four, just from the past month or so.

1) Half the US coal fleet is now gonersville

In October, the Texas utility Luminant (owned by Vistra Energy) announced the retirementof two coal plants — Sandow Power Plant and Big Brown Power Plant — by early 2018. The reasoning was simple, and familiar: They just can’t compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.

With that announcement, a milestone was reached: More than half of the total 2010 US coal fleet has retired or set a firm retirement date.

2) The most effective anti-coal campaign has been recharged with significant new funding

The 2010 fleet is the baseline used by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to track its progress in shutting down coal plants (2010 is when the campaign started).

As of today, it is halfway done: 266 down, 264 to go.

Accomplishing that much crucially involved more than $100 million in donations from famous rich guy Michael Bloomberg. And guess what? The day after Pruitt proposed to repeal the CPP, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it would give the campaign another $64 million.

Beyond Coal has quietly produced the largest tangible outcomes of any environmental campaign in my lifetime. One key to its success has been that it not only took Bloomberg’s money but also adopted some of his relentless business discipline. It is working methodically, from a comprehensive spreadsheet of plants, each plant with its own description, its own identified weaknesses, and its own timeline for retirement.

It identifies plants that are already uneconomic, or teetering on the edge, held up by patronage from state politicians and misguided regulations, and campaigns against those plants with tactics customized to local circumstances. Sometimes it takes the argument to public utility commissioners. Sometimes it works to generate political resistance from affected communities. Sometimes it sues. Sometimes its arguments are economic, sometimes about public health, sometimes about land and water — or some mixture. All the critiques are true; different ones are appropriate for different times and places. (Grunwald also had a great story on Beyond Coal.)

This discipline and flexibility has made the campaign a coal-closing machine, and with a fresh $64 million in its coffers — and with so many ripe targets — it is not going to slow down.

3) Wind is about to surpass coal in Texas, the freest of free energy markets

If recently announced coal retirements go through and the pace of wind energy construction continues at the expected rate, wind energy capacity could surpass coal capacity in Texas as early as this year.

This is of special significance because Texas is one of America’s biggest self-contained energy markets and also probably the closest thing the country has to a “free market” in electricity. Power is procured entirely through competitive bidding. Texas doesn’t even have capacity markets, which pay power plants to stay open in case of emergency. If capacity gets tight in Texas, the price of power rises — it’s a pure market signal.

So it’s symbolically redolent that, as this excellent piece from a group of UT Austin scholars explains, cheap natural gas and renewables are driving coal steadily out of the “bid stack.”

report last month from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) examined seven aging coal plants in Texas and concluded that “the coal-fired electricity industry in Texas is in decline and unlikely to recover in the face of rising competition from other energy sources.”

Texas is not exactly run by tree huggers. Its legislature is packed with climate deniers. It fought against the Clean Power Plan just as fiercely as any conservative state. The steady decline of coal in Texas has nothing to do with emissions or climate change and everything to do with relentless market discipline.

4) Companies, cities, states, and countries around the world are swearing off coal

Around the world, coal capacity is being squeezed by two trends: the falling number of new plants being deployed and the accelerating number of retirements. (Here’s a post digging into those trends in China, where hundreds of planned coal plants have been canceled in the past few years.) The sagging fortunes of coal have led a growing number of companies and political entities to give up on it entirely.

Another recent report from Greenpeace International and Coalswarm (two organizations that have been tireless in tracking global coal plants) examines that growing list of coal exiteers (a new term I just made up). The results are pretty startling.

A report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) examined seven aging coal plants in Texas and concluded that “the coal-fired electricity industry in Texas is in decline and unlikely to recover in the face of rising competition from other energy sources.”

Texas is not exactly run by tree huggers. Its legislature is packed with climate deniers. It fought against the Clean Power Plan just as fiercely as any conservative state. The steady decline of coal in Texas has nothing to do with emissions or climate change and everything to do with relentless market discipline.

More: 4 signs that Trump’s furious efforts to save coal are futile

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