As evidence mounts that the continued burning of fossil fuels is disrupting the Earth’s climate, efforts to eradicate coal-fired power plants are increasing. While there are many undesirable consequences of coal’s popular role in energy production — including its adverse effects on human health and the land from which it’s extracted — the main concern is that coal emissions are the primary driver of climate change. Burning coal releases more CO2 per unit of energy than any other energy source.
Coal Plants: The Turning Tide
What began as a few local ripples of resistance to coal power quickly evolved into a national tidal wave of grass-roots opposition from environmental, health, farm and community organizations. Despite a heavily funded industry campaign to promote “clean coal,” the American public is turning against coal. In a national poll that asked which electricity source people would prefer, only 3 percent chose coal. The Sierra Club, which has kept a tally of proposed coal-fired power plants in the United States and their fates since 2000, reports that 154 of 248 plant proposals have been defeated or abandoned.
An early turning point in the coal war came in June 2007 when Florida’s Public Service Commission refused to license a huge $5.7 billion, 1,960-megawatt coal plant because the utility proposing it could not prove that building the plant would be cheaper than investing in conservation, efficiency or renewable energy. This point is frequently made by lawyers from the nonprofit legal group Earthjustice, and combined with widely expressed public opposition to more coal-fired power plants in Florida, led to the quiet withdrawal of four other coal plant proposals in the state.
Coal’s future also suffered as Wall Street, pressured by the Rainforest Action Network, turned its back on the industry. In February 2008, investment banks Morgan Stanley, Citi and JPMorgan Chase announced that any future lending for coal-fired power would be contingent on the utilities demonstrating that the plants would be economically viable considering the higher costs associated with potential future federal restrictions on carbon emissions.
Broadening the Focus
Now that the United States has a near de facto moratorium on the licensing of new coal-fired power plants, the focus is shifting to the closing of existing coal plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced in August 2010 that it was planning to close nine of 59 coal-generating units within its plants. Duke Energy, another major southeastern utility, followed with an announcement that it was considering the closure of seven coal-fired units in North Carolina and South Carolina alone. Progress Energy, also in the Carolinas, is planning to close 11 units at four sites. In Pennsylvania, Exelon Power is preparing to close four coal units at two sites. Xcel Energy, the dominant utility in Colorado, announced it was closing seven coal units. And in April 2011, TVA agreed to close another nine units as part of a legal settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency. In an analysis of the future of coal, Wood Mackenzie, a leading energy consulting and research firm, describes these closings as a harbinger of things to come for the coal industry.
The chairman of the powerful U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, observed in early 2009 that the United States may no longer need additional coal plants. Regulators, investment banks and political leaders are now beginning to see what has been obvious for some time to climate scientists: It makes no sense to build coal-fired power plants only to bulldoze them in a few years.
Closing coal plants in the United States may be much easier than it appears. If the energy efficiency level of the other 49 states were raised to that of New York, the most energy-efficient state, the energy saved would be sufficient to close 80 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants. The remaining plants could be shut down by turning to renewables.
A Message to the World
The U.S. transition from coal to wind and solar is underway. Between 2007 and 2010, U.S. coal use dropped 8 percent. During the same period, and despite the recession, 300 new wind farms came online.
With the likelihood that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be approved in the United States, this moratorium sends a message to the world. Denmark and New Zealand have already banned new coal-fired power plants. As of late 2010, Hungary was on the verge of closing its one remaining coal plant. Ontario, where 39 percent of Canadians live, plans to phase out coal entirely by 2014. Scotland announced in May that it plans to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Even China, the world’s largest energy consumer (primarily from coal), is surging ahead with renewable energy and now leads the world in new wind farm installations. In contrast to investments in oil fields and coal mines, where depletion and abandonment are inevitable, renewable energy sources are inexhaustible.
Although the prospects look good for moving away from coal, timing is key. Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet? If not, sea level will rise 23 feet. Hundreds of coastal cities will be abandoned. There will be hundreds of millions of environmental refugees. If we cannot mobilize to save the Greenland ice sheet, we probably cannot save civilization as we know it.
Adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown.