Trump can’t save coal—even the Kentucky Coal Museum is using rooftop solar
The Trump administration is repealing the Clean Power Plan and proposing to extend the life of the defunct U.S. coal industry by providing it with taxpayer-funded subsidies. The proposal is the equivalent of having offered subsidies to hay producers in order to keep buggies on the streets in 1910, when automobiles had already shown their superiority.
We are all aware of the familiar corporate statement “This model has been discontinued.” We should all become equally aware of the fact that the global coal-based economic model has also been discontinued. The historic coal industrial complex that includes both coal mining and coal-fired electric plants has been permanently and irrevocably replaced.
The world (or rather parts of it) experienced tremendous economic growth over the past one hundred years in large measure thanks to the use of coal for the generation of electricity. But that growth model has now moved into the annals of history never to return. Coal has been displaced by cleaner, cheaper and more effective forms of energy generation, indirectly because of the push of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but directly due to the many constraints emerging from the pernicious attributes of that geologically carbonized substance.
First and perhaps of foremost importance is the fact that coal is the dirtiest of all energy sources. The public health consequences of coal mining and burning include black lung disease caused by coal dust, and chronic bronchitis, asthma and congestive heart failure caused by air-polluting particulates, leading to reductions in life expectancy and premature deaths. These health effects are suffered both by coal miners, as well as by those who live near coal burning plants. Dense air pollution is the main reason why China and India are shutting down coal plants in the proximity of major cities.
Second, there is growing concern over the impacts on fresh water. Mountain top removal for coal mining frequently buries streams, contaminates local water sources, and increases the risk of flooding. Furthermore, some types of coal need to be washed to remove excess oil and slurry, contaminating surface and ground water and making it unusable for any other purpose afterward. In a world in which fresh water is increasingly a scarce resource and is urgently needed for food security and sanitation, there is rising anxiety about coal’s impact on water. Highly water-intensive, a typical coal plant uses up to four billion gallons of water a year.
Third, as a result of the above two effects, public tolerance of coal plants that pollute the air and mines that contaminate the surrounding water is quickly dwindling. The effects are becoming more understood and increasingly measured, therefore less acceptable.
Fourth, coal is an obsolete technology that creates no new jobs. In fact the industry has been contracting employment over the past 10 to 15 years worldwide as mining becomes every day more automated. In the U.S. the coal industry has shrunk from 130,000 to around 50,000 today, fewer than are currently employed by Arby’s. Meanwhile the International Energy Agency said that the solar PV industry creates more than twice the number of jobs per unit of electricity generation compared with coal or natural gas. With the right support, coal miners can retrain and become key to the new energy generation industry.
Fifth, renewable energy is increasingly competitive and rapidly rising to utility scale, making finance institutions no longer willing to incur the risk of exposure to assets, which are no longer competitive and quickly losing their value in rapidly changing energy markets. The world’s newest development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB,), has said it will not fund coal. Bank of America was the first major private sector bank to adopt a policy to scale back financing for coal mining companies. Goldman Sachs has concluded that thermal coal has “reached its retirement age” and Bloomberg New Energy Finance has assessed the “beginning of the end” for fossil fuels, in particular coal.