Despite what the Trump administration says, coal is out

The energy transition is happening now and will only continue.

 

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the Western campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.


If you want to understand the demise of coal despite what some politicians insist, consider this quote from CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn, whose utility is invested in New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant: “The current data clearly supports the replacement of the coal ... with an energy mix that includes more renewables and natural gas as the best, most economical path.”

This explains why — much faster than anyone would have predicted just a year ago — so many utilities are transitioning out of the West’s largest coal plants. For example, the CEO of Talen Energy wants out of Montana’s Colstrip Coal Plant by the end of 2018, because it is putting the company in the red by $30 million a year.

Scott Harrelson of SRP, operator of Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, blamed “changing economics” after the company announced the likely closure of another coal plant 25 years ahead of schedule. These plants struggle to sell coal-fired power because it’s become more expensive than cleaner energy options, like solar, wind and energy efficiency.

This flurry of companies hastening their exit from the coal business should raise an eyebrow at President Donald Trump’s frequently repeated promise to bring coal jobs back to the U.S. The companies’ announcements came right before and right after Trump stymied the Clean Power Plan, which would have let states decide how to cut harmful pollution by building more clean energy. And just a day later, he and his secretary of the Interior decided to reopen public lands to a broken federal coal-leasing program, even though it will cost taxpayers billions. Trump also wants to slash the Department of Energy’s innovative programs that helped establish multibillion-dollar clean-tech companies that employ hundreds of people, including First Solar and Tesla.

The first conveyor belts in coal mines were used in 1905, vastly improving efficiency within the mining industry.

Despite all the bluster about a coal revival, when Reuters recently polled 32 utility companies in states that were attempting to block the Clean Power Plan, the majority said they are still planning to phase out coal in favor of cleaner, cheaper resources. Not one utility announced that it intended to build new coal-fired power plants. And this makes perfect sense: The existing plants are getting older and more expensive to operate with each passing day.

This transition away from coal is happening most rapidly here in the West. Washington and Oregon are on the way to joining California in being coal-free. Nevada is trying to pass more ambitious clean-energy goals, and 14 Western cities and towns have already made 100 percent clean-energy commitments. The West’s vast clean energy opportunities explain why a utility like Xcel is about to spend billions of dollars on wind farms in Colorado and New Mexico, mostly using wind turbines built in Colorado.

Even states that have relatively low clean-energy goals are seeing major economic benefits. According to the Department of Energy, nearly 38,000 Utahns work in solar, wind, smart grid and battery storage. Even though the clean-energy industry is relatively young, it is growing faster than any other energy source and employs more people than coal, oil or gas.

This historic shift in how we produce and deliver electricity cannot be slowed down. That means continued change and challenges for working people — change that must be planned for rather than ignored by politicians who seem to be content with making unrealistic promises to their constituents. Failure to plan and act will hurt the very people who have often risked their own lives working to keep our lights on and our appliances humming.

Instead of using taxpayer money to delay the inevitable closure of coal plants, as Montana has done, we should invest directly in the affected communities to help them diversify their economies and create family-sustaining jobs. Right now, two critically important federal bills that will help do this are in the works: the RECLAIM Act and the Miners’ Protection Act.

These bipartisan bills are steadily moving forward because coal communities and grassroots organizations are demanding that their representatives in Washington, D.C., do something. All levels of government must take these efforts seriously and find ways to create more economic opportunities, modernize workforce development programs, and advocate for better pay and benefits for all workers. Hundreds of thousands of people already work in clean energy. Utility CEOs, coal plant owners, and investors are telling us clearly that the market has chosen clean energy over coal. Change is happening now and will only continue. The sooner we listen, the sooner we can build a healthier, more prosperous future in the West — and across the country.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.