Pandemic accelerates renewable energy surpassing coal energy in US

In an article by Brad Plumer of The New York Times (see below) called “In a first, renewable energy is poised to eclipse coal,” the growth of renewable energy has been further fueled by the pandemic. This year, renewable energy (solar, wind, bio-mass, geothermal and hydroelectric), will surpass coal as the second largest energy source.

Per Plumer, efforts by the current president to keep propping up coal-burning plants have proven ineffective against market conditions. He notes “Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40% in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80%. And, the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.”

Plumer adds the impact of COVID-19 which has reduced electricity usage with fewer stores and restaurants open is hastening this trend. “And because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.”

Further, “Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and its decline has already helped drive down US carbon dioxide emissions 15% since 2005. This year, the (Energy Information Administration) expects the US emissions to fall by another 11%, the largest drop in at least 70 years.”

Coupled with people driving less and avoiding traveling by airplanes, an upside to COVID-19 is 2020 will be an impactful year on less carbon usage which will help in cleaning air (which is noticeable from satellites) and addressing climate change. As the economy slowly recovers with the majority of people being cautious in their movements and spending patterns, at least this positive impact will continue for more than 2020. And, hopefully with the coal plants being used more and more in the bull pen for extra need, more may be retired.

Still, some folks are surprised by the news of the decline in coal. They should not be. About eight years ago, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens was on “60 Minutes” and said the future energy source in the windy plains states is wind energy. He added fracking for natural gas will buy time until the cost of wind is more economical. Now, oil rich Texas bears that out with wind energy surpassing coal by itself this year. While Texas produces more wind energy than any other state, Iowa gets over 40% of its electricity from wind and most of the top states in percentage of electricity are plains states.

Not only has coal become relatively more expensive due to the cost declines in other sources, its costs and risk continue beyond the life of the fuel and the plant. Duke Energy and TVA have had to clean up messes from coal ash that have bled into the water systems. And, Duke’s Dan River spill was from a long-ago retired coal plant.

The people I feel for are the coal miners whose hopes have been propped up by politicians who have not been forthcoming. I have known about coal’s demise since that Pickens’ interview and through other news and reading sources. My guess is so have the politicians, yet rather than be truthful and help them plan for new careers, they kept feeding their hopes. And, last time I checked, the wind blows and sun shines in those coal producing states. So, these miners are owed long-time-coming truths and help to find and train for new jobs.

Coal can’t be made great again says conservative economist

Walter Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans and a Libertarian. He recently penned an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “Coal can’t be made great again.”

Block sets the context for free-market thinking using more basic purchases – shoes, clothes, restaurant meals. This “leave it to the market forces” is a mantra for free-market Republicans. Yet, as Block notes “One would think that Republicans would apply that same logic to our fuel industry.”

He adds while government has a “legitimate role” in ensuring the safety of nuclear and other plants, “it should not favor, or oppose, nuclear power, gas, oil, coal, wind, water, solar, or any other source of energy over any other.”

He also notes a couple of observations of data points which reveal “the market is moving away from coal.” First, he writes “In 2016, American reliance on coal had dipped to 30% of total electric energiy expenditure, from about 50% in 2000. In contrast, natural gas and even wind, solar and water power are becoming less expensive, and will likely take on a greater share of the overall energy industry.”

Second, he notes “For the first time, as predicted by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analytsis, in April, renewables generated more electricity than power plants fueled by what was once called ‘King Coal.'”

It is through these lenses, he views the efforts to subsidize coal use and place tariffs on imported solar panels as a political attempt to “pick winners.” We should not be “propping up coal” at the expense of alternative energy sources.

In my view, we are passed the tipping point on coal. New plants are too costly to build and the present value cost of acquiring, transporting, burning, storing the ash, health and environmental degradation and litigation of coal exceeds other sources. Further, the solar energy jobs are 4x the number of coal jobs. And, wind energy is soaring in growth, especially through the plains states.

This is not a US-centric result. Renewables are growing rapidly abroad with Germany now getting more energy from renewables than coal. China has been heavily investing in solar panels. But, my favorite global example is southern Australia is now solar powered using American Elon Musk’s battery storage and a French company’s installation of solar panels. Three continents came together to forge a renewable future.

While I agree with Block for the most part, government can play a role to help move forward cleaner energy initiatives, at least temporarily. So, the temporary 30% tax credit for solar power installation makes sense, especially when our Department of Defense continues to cite climate change as a significant threat to national security, even under the current president.

But, as the renewable costs have become more on par from a production standpoint, they can stand on their own without the tax subsidy. Embracing future technologies that will drive the economy is essential. As an example, yesterday, Toyota announced the movement from 2030 forward to 2025 when 1/2 of their vehicle sales will be electric cars, with batteries being made in China. So, if our leaders look backwards too much, we might get passed by.

 

 

 

 

Interesting contradictions per John Oliver

Our world is filled with interesting contradictions. It is especially apparent when people ignore facts or try to tell you other so-called alternate facts. Here are a few that I find amusing courtesy of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight:”

– The Kentucky Museum on Coal is powered by solar energy. They save $13,000 per annum on energy cost using renewable energy.

– Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA notes that 50,000 coal jobs have been created under this President, when there are only 76,000 jobs to begin with. The correct answer is 1,300 jobs, which is positive, but 48,700 lower than advertised.

– While coal energy CEOs like to blame President Obama, it should be noted coal jobs have been on the decline for decades. And, 50% of more recent job losses have been due to natural gas, 18% due to renewable energy and the rest due to technological improvements. That means 32% of the job losses are on the shoulders of the coal CEOs.

– As one coal company went into bankruptcy to reorganize, the CEO petitioned the court to allow him to cancel a non-union retiree medical and life insurance plan to save $3 million, but permit them to set up a retention bonus plan for management for $11 million.

– While the President has touted his interest in serving the needs of coal miners, his proposed budget eliminated funding for an Appalachian retraining program for displaced coal workers.

As Oliver points out, there is a huge distinction between actions that support the coal industry and actions that help coal workers. The President and others owe these coal miners the truth. Their jobs are going away and we need to work on career redevelopment.