I truly feel sorry for coal miners. They do a very hard, dirty and dangerous job in an industry that is in decline. Many are losing their good paying jobs as the industry continues to go downhill as other industry sources replace this source.
They are being promised things that politicians will have a hard time keeping. And, they have been told such promises for years. Leaders need to shoot straight with these hard working men and women. Frankly, I fault their Senators, Congressional Representatives and Governors for not shooting straight as what has been happening has been known for several years.
Coal has been on the decline for several years, primarily due to the fracking boom which produced increasingly cheaper natural gas. The gas burns cleaner than the coal, although it has its own issues. But, the lower production costs caused utilities to switch their coal-fired plants to natural gas. Plus, they do not have to maintain coal ash for many years in the future, even after the plant stops producing electricity.
The next wave became the movement to more renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass. Solar and wind energy continue to plummet in price and are comparable to coal in cost. Yet, these renewable energy sources don’t have the additive long term costs of maintaining coal ash sites, health costs that coal burning creates and the environmental costs of acquisition and transport. Plus, there is ongoing litigation risk, which TVA and Duke Energy are witnessing in spades.
Finally, the concept of a “virtuous cycle” enters in. With solar and wind energy, energy need not be created to produce electricity. With coal and natural gas, energy must be expended through burning to create steam out of water to turn the turbines which turn the electromagnets to create electricity. This less virtuous cycle costs money, which means over time the efficiency of renewable energy will be greater. So, a company may not invest in a coal-fired plant, as it will eventually become less cost-effective. This will be heightened further by improved battery storage and long term, if clean nuclear fusion can be accomplished in large scale, following small scale success in the last two years.
What this means is coal miner jobs will continue to decline and they won’t be coming back. With climate change, the need to move is great. Unfortunately for these workers, coal is not the future answer. Yet, the leaders in these states should have communicated this a few years ago and worked to get money for retraining and new industries. To me, they have been derelict in their duties. One Presidential candidate has said he will bring those jobs back, which is a false promise. On the flip side, the other party has said let’s focus on retraining and new industries. Bernie Sanders even proposed a bipartisan bill in the Senate to do just that.
On a positive note, the sister and brother-in-law of a coal miner are teaching several displaced coal miners how to computer program. It started small, but has grown with the increasing need and additional funding. The program is appropriately called “Mined Minds.” This is the kind of investment in our coal miners that is needed, as those jobs are going away. Now, the leaders need to step in and do what they should have done a few years ago. It is time to shoot straight with these hard working men and women.
The virtuous cycle is a nice term, but what in the heck does it mean? In the context under which I most recently saw it used is with one of two ultimate rationales why the move to renewable energy will begin to accelerate and replace fossil fuel energy sources.
Of course, renewable energy has many benefits and as the cost of production continues to fall, it will be on par with current fossil fuel energy production costs. This does not even consider the other costs that can be avoided which are inherent in the fossil fuel process. And, a key rationale for the migration will be the avoidance of the significant water loss that occurs in the fossil fuel and nuclear power production process through dissipated steam and loss of water to retrieve natural gas and oil through fracking.
But, the virtuous cycle will be one that will join water as the key reason for the accelerated migration to renewable energy. In essence, in fossil fuel energy production, energy has to be used to create energy. For example, to create electricity with fossil fuel, we have to burn coal or natural gas to boil water into steam to turn the turbines which turn the electromagnet generators. We have to exhaust energy to make more energy.
With renewable energy, we need not exhaust energy to make energy. The sun will shine and the wind will blow. They are doing this already, so we are merely harnessing that energy to produce electricity thereby creating a virtuous cycle. Using monetary terms, we do not need to spend money to make money, once the solar panels or windmills are created. Yes, we need to maintain them, but we do not have to spend energy to create new energy.
This matters now as energy companies look to build new energy production facilities. As a company considers the building over years of a natural gas-fired plant, the virtuous cycle of renewable energy may render that natural gas investment obsolete before a return on investment can be achieved. Companies will migrate to cost-effective and environmentally friendly energy sources. The fossil fuel industry is big on focusing on the cost and jobs as reasons to do more of the status quo, yet the production cost will flip the other way and will become more favorable for renewables. The jobs are already there and growing rapidly with double-digit increases.
So, when people say we cannot afford to move to renewable energy, that is actually a very short-sighted argument. When you factor all of the added costs on environment and health of fossil fuel acquisition, use, and future maintenance, the costs are already in the favor of renewables. The virtuous cycle will accelerate the move even more.