19 Oct 2017, excerpt from David Roberts on Vox.com
A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that “the share of US electricity coming from coal fell from 51 percent in 2008 to 31 percent in 2016 — an unprecedented change.”
There are still hundreds of plants in operation in the US, producing roughly a third of US power, but one in four of those plants is slated to retire or shift to natural gas, and another 17 percent beyond that are uneconomic, running only by virtue of being shielded from competition. As Department of Energy data shows, after a brief bump last year, US coal has resumed its inexorable decline.
New symbols of that decline are coming at such a torrid pace these days that they are getting difficult to keep up with — new policies, new milestones, new reports, all pointing in the same direction. Here are four, just from the past month or so.
1) Half the US coal fleet is now gonersville
Last week, the Texas utility Luminant (owned by Vistra Energy) announced the retirement of two coal plants — Sandow Power Plant and Big Brown Power Plant — by early 2018. The reasoning was simple, and familiar: They just can’t compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.
With that announcement, a milestone was reached: More than half of the total 2010 US coal fleet has retired or set a firm retirement date. Xcel announced it will close two in Colorado by 2025.
2) The most effective anti-coal campaign has been recharged with significant new funding
The 2010 fleet is the baseline used by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to track its progress in shutting down coal plants (2010 is when the campaign started).
As of today, it is halfway done: 263 down, 260 to go.
Accomplishing that much crucially involved more than $100 million in donations from famous rich guy Michael Bloomberg. And guess what? The day after Pruitt proposed to repeal the CPP, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced that it would give the campaign another $64 million.
Beyond Coal has quietly produced the largest tangible outcomes of any environmental campaign in my lifetime. One key to its success has been that it not only took Bloomberg’s money but also adopted some of his relentless business discipline. It is working methodically, from a comprehensive spreadsheet of plants, each plant with its own description, its own identified weaknesses, and its own timeline for retirement.
It identifies plants that are already uneconomic, or teetering on the edge, held up by patronage from state politicians and misguided regulations, and campaigns against those plants with tactics customized to local circumstances. Sometimes it takes the argument to public utility commissioners. Sometimes it works to generate political resistance from affected communities. Sometimes it sues. Sometimes its arguments are economic, sometimes about public health, sometimes about land and water — or some mixture. All the critiques are true; different ones are appropriate for different times and places. (Grunwald also had a great story on Beyond Coal.)
This discipline and flexibility has made the campaign a coal-closing machine, and with a fresh $64 million in its coffers — and with so many ripe targets — it is not going to slow down.
3) Wind is about to surpass coal in Texas, the freest of free energy markets
If recently announced coal retirements go through and the pace of wind energy construction continues at the expected rate, wind energy capacity could surpass coal capacity in Texas as early as next year.
This is of special significance because Texas is one of America’s biggest self-contained energy markets and also probably the closest thing the country has to a “free market” in electricity. Power is procured entirely through competitive bidding. Texas doesn’t even have capacity markets, which pay power plants to stay open in case of emergency. If capacity gets tight in Texas, the price of power rises — it’s a pure market signal.
So it’s symbolically redolent that, as this excellent piece from a group of UT Austin scholars explains, cheap natural gas and renewables are driving coal steadily out of the “bid stack.”
A report last month from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) examined seven aging coal plants in Texas and concluded that “the coal-fired electricity industry in Texas is in decline and unlikely to recover in the face of rising competition from other energy sources.”
Texas is not exactly run by tree huggers. Its legislature is packed with climate deniers. It fought against the Clean Power Plan just as fiercely as any conservative state. The steady decline of coal in Texas has nothing to do with emissions or climate change and everything to do with relentless market discipline.
4) Companies, cities, states, and countries around the world are swearing off coal
Around the world, coal capacity is being squeezed by two trends: the falling number of new plants being deployed and the accelerating number of retirements. (Here’s a post digging into those trends in China, where hundreds of planned coal plants have been canceled in the past few years.) The sagging fortunes of coal have led a growing number of companies and political entities to give up on it entirely.
A new report from Greenpeace International and Coalswarm (two organizations that have been tireless in tracking global coal plants) examines that growing list of coal exiteers (a new term I just made up). The results are pretty startling.
The report boasts a giant collection of profiles of political entities — cities, states, provinces, and countries — with key statistics on their coal plants and coal plans. Out of that collection, five have completely phased out coal power since 2014 and 18 more have announced a coal phaseout by 2030 or sooner. That list includes the UK, France, and Canada, along with six other European Union countries, along with the capital cities of both China and India, along with California and Massachusetts. (Germany has said no coal by 2050 but is under pressure to move up that date.)
Meanwhile, out of the 1,675 companies that owned or developed coal plants since 2010, more than a quarter (448) have bailed on the coal power business entirely, canceling coal plant proposals and shutting down old plants. According to the report, that represents an exodus of $432 billion in capital and the capacity equivalent of 370 large coal power plants.
Coal is increasingly seen for what it is: a dirty necessity in some places, but nothing anyone would choose if they could avoid it. To be free of coal is becoming a mark of modernity.
Trump and Pruitt are fighting a doomed rear-guard action
I don’t think another coal plant will ever be built in the US. New coal plants, with modern pollution controls, are simply not competitive with natural gas and renewables (much less efficiency).
Trump and his administration, in this area as in so many others, are engaged in a rear-guard battle. They are scrabbling to keep uncompetitive coal plants open and running, but as we saw with Perry’s bonkers bid to blow up energy markets, there’s just no way to do that without forcefully intervening and subsidizing them (which is not a stable long-term business plan).
Pruitt is starting a long, shady bid to overturn the never-implemented Clean Power Plan, but the US is on the verge of meeting the CPP targets regardless, 10 years early, mainly because (you guessed it) uneconomic coal plants are shutting down.
There’s a shrinking customer base for coal, so no one is going to want the monument-adjacent land Zinke is offering for mining, any more than they want the dirt-cheap leases of public land he’s been offering for mining.
In short, bad policy could mildly slow coal’s decline, good policy could radically accelerate it, but no policy could stop or reverse it, short of nationalizing the energy sector. Coal’s “natural” rate of decline may not be fast enough to meet long-term US carbon goals — for that, it will need a policy boost — but it is fast enough to render Trump’s effort utterly futile.
Trump can make big promises to miners. He can hold photo ops with them. But he can’t save coal. The best he can do is to let it pollute just a little bit more on its way out the door.
The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.
The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.
Beyond Coal is the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement. It’s gone largely unnoticed amid the furor over the Keystone pipeline and President Barack Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, but it’s helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal.
“They’re sophisticated, they’re very active, and they’re better funded than we are,” says Mike Duncan, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “I don’t like what they’re doing; we’re losing a lot of coal in this country. But they do show up.”
Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.
This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade. Coal is also America’s top source of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic air pollutants, so fewer coal plants also means less asthma and lung disease—not to mention fewer coal-ash spills and coal-mining disasters. The shift toward cleaner-burning gas and zero-emissions renewables is the most important change in our electricity mix in decades, and while Obama has been an ally in the war on coal—not always as aggressive an ally as the industry claims—the Sierra Club is in the trenches. The U.S. had 523 coal-fired power plants when Beyond Coal began targeting them; just last week, it celebrated the 190thretirement of its campaign in Asheville, N.C., culminating a three-year fight that had been featured in the climate documentary “Years of Living Dangerously.”
Beyond Coal isn’t the stereotypical Sierra Club campaign, tree-huggers shouting save-the-Earth slogans. Yes, it sometimes deploys its 2.4 million-member, grass-roots army to shutter plants with traditional not-in-my-back-yard organizing and right-to-breathe agitating. But it usually wins by arguing that ditching coal will save ratepayers money.
Behind that argument lies a revolution in the economics of power, changes few Americans think about when they flick their switches. Coal used to be the cheapest form of electricity by far, but it’s gotten pricier as it’s been forced to clean up more of its mess, while the costs of gas, wind and solar have plunged in recent years. Now retrofitting old coal plants with the pollution controls needed to comply with Obama’s limits on soot, sulfur and mercury is becoming cost-prohibitive—and the EPA is finalizing its new carbon rules as well as tougher ozone restrictions that should add to the burden. That’s why the Sierra Club finds itself in foxholes with big-box stores, manufacturers and other business interests, fighting coal upgrades that would jack up electricity bills, pushing for cheaper renewables and energy efficiency instead. In a case I watched in Oklahoma City, every stakeholder supported Beyond Coal’s push for a utility to buy more low-cost wind power—including a coalition of industrial customers that reportedly included a Koch Industries-owned paper mill.
“They’re not burning bras. They’re fighting dollar to dollar,” says attorney Jim Roth, who represented a group of hospitals on Beyond Coal’s side in the Oklahoma case. “They’ve become masters at bringing financial arguments to environmental questions.”
As the affordability case for coal has lost traction, the industry’s defenders have portrayed the war on coal as a war on reliability, an assault on 24-hour “baseload” plants that provide juice when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. They ask how the Sierra Club expects America to run its refrigerators around the clock—since it also opposes nuclear power and has a separate Beyond Gas campaign. Duncan’s group started a Twitter meme warning that Americans could end up #ColdInTheDark, and even Bloomberg suggested to me in a recent interview that the Club’s leaders seem to want Americans to wear loincloths and live in caves.
In fact, neither the decline of coal, nor the boom in renewables has blacked out the grid, and Beyond Coal’s leaders are confident electricity markets can handle much more intermittent power. In any case, they see coal as the lowest-hanging fruit in the struggle to stabilize the climate, not only our dirtiest fossil fuel but the one with the cheapest alternatives. In the long run, combating global warming will depend on a multitude of factors, from electric vehicles to carbon releases from deforestation to methane releases from belching cows, but for the next decade, our climate progress depends mostly on reducing our reliance on the black stuff. Coal retirements have enabled Obama to pledge U.S. emissions cuts of up to 28 percent by 2025, which has, in turn, enabled him to strike a climate deal with China and pursue a global deal later this year in Paris.
“We’ve found the secret sauce to making progress in unlikely places,” says Bruce Nilles, who leads Beyond Coal from the Club’s San Francisco headquarters. “And every time we beat the coal boys, people say: ‘Whoa. It can be done.’”
The Sierra Club can’t claim full credit for the coal bust. It didn’t ratchet down the prices of gas, wind and solar or enact the flurry of EPA rules ratcheting up the price of coal, although its lobbyists and lawyers have pushed hard for government support for renewables while fighting in court over just about every coal-related regulation. It didn’t produce the energy efficiency boom that has reined in electricity demand, either. Still, a Bloomberg Philanthropies analysis found that at least 40 percent of U.S. coal retirements could not have happened without Beyond Coal’s advocacy. The status quo wields a lot of power in the heavily regulated power sector, where economics and mathematics don’t always beat politics and inertia. The case for change keeps getting stronger, but someone has to make the case.
When Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal’s national director, first visited Indianapolis to fight an inner-city plant, the headline in the Star was: “Beyond Coal’s Director Faces Tough Sell in Indiana.” But after two years of door-knocking, phone-banking and educating officials on the new realities of electricity, the Sierra Club and its local partners helped shut down the plant. Hitt has seen the same kind of miracle in Chicago, in Omaha, alongside a Paiute tribe reservation in Nevada, even in coal strongholds like Kentucky. It’s starting to feel more like a pattern than a miracle.
“David is fighting Goliath every day, and David keeps winning,” Hitt says.
Energy analysts have a way of making Goliath’s new underdog status seem inevitable. Then again, it wasn’t long ago that their burning question about the U.S. coal industry was not how fast it would go away, but how fast it would grow.
Mike Duncan, a former RNC chairman who now heads the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, says of Beyond Coal: “I don’t like what they’re doing; we’re losing a lot of coal in this country. But they do show up.” | AP Photo
The story of coal is a rich vein in the American story, powering our industry, our railroads, our politics. For decades, the work of extracting coal after millions of years underground—so dangerous for some, so lucrative for others—was seen as God’s work. The alchemy of converting coal into valuable energy was seen as a fulfillment of America’s destiny to exploit nature for the benefit of mankind, even as the smog spewing out of coal smokestacks was seen as part of the dystopia of urban life.
These days, growing concerns about climate have heightened concerns about coal, which produces 75 percent of the power sector’s carbon, and more emissions than all our cars and trucks combined. But even at the dawn of the 21st century, the George W. Bush administration’s main concern about coal power and fossil energy in general was that the U.S. wasn’t producing enough of it. In 2001, an energy task force led by Dick Cheney, after a series of secret meetings with fossil-fuel executives, called for a new power-plant construction boom, warning that the alternative was a national reprise of the rolling blackouts that had just roiled California. Utilities quickly proposed about 200 new coal plants, and faced no organized national opposition. Coal plants have a useful lifespan of at least 40 years, so the U.S. was poised to lock in a new generation of dirty power. And all that new capacity was poised to destroy any incentive to develop clean wind or solar power.
That’s when the Sierra Club got into its first big coal fight over a proposed billion-dollar plant south of Chicago, a welcome-to-the-NFL episode. The Chicago area already had poor air quality—the coal plants around the Loop were known as the Ring of Fire—and local volunteers, led by an indefatigable German immigrant named Verena Owen, were desperate to block the project. Their cause seemed hopeless, but for Owen, who is now Beyond Coal’s lead volunteer, it was personal. Her best friend had struggled to breathe whenever the air was hazy and eventually died of lung disease, leaving behind a daughter in kindergarten. “I don’t know how many people we ended up saving, but I know one we didn’t,” Owen says.
The first time Nilles, at the time a lawyer for the Sierra Club’s Midwest office in Chicago, tried to attend a hearing about the plant, union members who supported the project came early and packed the hall while the Club was holding a news conference. Illinois regulators soon rubber-stamped the permit. Owen and Nilles can still recite the date and time of the news dump: Friday, Oct. 10, 2003, at 5:10 p.m., so the bureaucrats could ignore their calls and escape for the weekend. And the industry had an even easier time of it elsewhere. Nilles later reviewed the record for another billion-dollar plant that broke ground in Iowa about the same time, and discovered there hadn’t been a single public comment in opposition.
“Everything was going full speed in the wrong direction, and we had no capacity to fight,” he says. “We realized we needed a strategy. Fast.”
The strategy that Nilles devised was to fight every new plant from every conceivable environmental, economic and political angle. The Sierra Club began organizing boot camps to teach lawyers and volunteers around the region how to block coal permits. Demand for the seminars was so intense that, at one point, Nilles’ boss had to remind him that Texas was not part of the Midwest. But he figured Texans who breathed air and drank water had as much to lose from exposure to coal-fired pollutants as Midwesterners had. Some of the Club’s funders thought his fight-everything-everywhere approach was unrealistic during a national coal rush, but every proposed plant was in someone’s backyard, and the Club had members in every corner of the country. Nilles couldn’t imagine telling any of them their communities would have to be sacrificed for the greater tactical good.
Environmentalists have always been good at blocking stuff, and over the next few years, the kitchen-sink strategy produced some improbable victories. Nilles exploited threats to an endangered clover to delay the Chicago-area plant, and the utility eventually abandoned it. A local Sierra Club chapter stopped a massive plant in Kentucky coal country after a 63-day hearing, convincing regulators that the proposal had inadequate pollution controls, and that adequate controls would be exorbitant for ratepayers. These were shoestring crusades with expert witnesses crashing on the couches of volunteers, but the victories felt contagious, spreading hope to activists in other states who read about them on the Club’s coal listserv.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club was canvassing its members to develop a new long-term strategic plan. To the surprise of then-Director Carl Pope, they overwhelmingly wanted climate and energy to be the top priority, a major shift for a group that had emphasized wilderness conservation since its creation by the legendary outdoorsman John Muir. At a meeting in Tucson in early 2006, the Club’s board voted to build the fledgling Midwestern anti-coal effort into a national campaign. Climate activists are often accused of wasting energy on symbolic movement-building efforts with relatively limited impact on emissions, like their crusades to stop Keystone and get universities to divest from fossil fuels. Beyond Coal’s leaders do oppose the pipeline and support the divestment movement, but the rationale for the campaign was all about hunting where the ducks are.
“It was existential necessity: Look how many coal plants they want to build. Look how much carbon they’d produce. Well, it’s game over if we don’t stop them,” Pope recalls. “If we were going to focus on climate, we had to focus on coal.”
In a bow to political realism, the initial goal was to make sure coal was “mined responsibly, burned cleanly and disposed of safely.” But the campaigners didn’t really believe coal could be burned cleanly. The original mouthful of a mission soon evolved to “Move Beyond Coal,” then just “Beyond Coal.” It was a much simpler message, helping to unite a variety of activists—working for specific neighborhoods, Indian tribes, mountains targeted by mining outfits, public health, environmental justice, clean energy, and the climate—against a common enemy. The Sierra Club would be the one constant presence in the war on coal, but it began partnering with more than 100 local, regional and national groups in its battles around the country.
The campaign was remarkably successful. Nilles and his team scoured every permit application for vulnerabilities and managed to block all but 30 of the 200 plants proposed in the Bush era. The nice thing about fighting new plants was that they didn’t exist yet, so it only took one deal breaker—too much smog in a high-smog area, too close to a national park, too expensive for ratepayers, whatever—to break a deal. Some of the plants that did get built still haunt Nilles, but those defeats did not doom the decarbonization of America. The game was not over.
By 2008, with the economy crashing and power demand slumping, utilities had stopped pushing new coal plants. That’s when Nilles began plotting to go after old ones—an even tougher challenge, but a vital one to avoid the game-over scenario. He had moved to the liberal college town of Madison, and he was amazed that an old coal plant a mile from his home still had no pollution controls; it was way dirtier than the new plants he was fighting around the country. The nation’s fleet of existing coal plants was still emitting nearly 2 billion tons of carbon and causing an estimated 13,000 premature deaths every year. It felt good to stop projects that would have increased those numbers, but Nilles wanted to use the Club’s newfound expertise to reduce them.
“It’s a lot easier to throw ourselves in front of bulldozers to stop something than it is to shut something down that’s already part of the community, paying taxes, generating power, providing jobs,” Nilles says. “But that’s where the emissions are.”
That was also the year Obama won the presidency, creating hope for stricter EPA regulation of sulfur, soot and ozone, plus the first-ever regulations of mercury, coal ash and carbon. As difficult as it would be to kill plants that had been operating for decades—two-thirds of the coal fleet predated the Clean Air Act of 1970—Nilles thought the combination of top-down rules from Washington and bottom-up pressure at state and local hearings could force utilities to confront investment decisions they had been delaying all those decades. Most utilities would need approval from their financial and environmental regulators before they could install expensive pollution controls. And while the utilities might be happy to charge their customers tens of millions of dollars for upgrades in order to comply with one new rule—plus a tidy profit they’re usually guaranteed for capital improvements—utility commissions might not let them start down that road if they faced hundreds of millions of dollars in additional compliance costs from rules still to come.
Once again, the campaign produced some inspiring early wins, including the retirement of that antiquated plant near Nilles in Madison. He also filed a lawsuit against his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, to get it off coal. The Club quickly found that when it could stop investor-owned utilities from getting a blank check to charge ratepayers for coal upgrades, they would usually shut down the plants rather than risk shareholder dollars. That was even true in coal country, where homeowners, businesses and regulators were just as allergic to pricey upgrades—and utilities were just as reluctant to foot the bill themselves. As Nilles’ new deputy, Hitt, a West Virginia activist who had spent years trying to stop mining companies from blowing up mountains in Appalachia, found she could do more to protect the mountains by shutting down the plants that used their coal.
Beyond Coal had grown from three staffers to a 15-state operation, but it still lacked the scale to fight 523 plants all over the country. It needed to get a lot bigger. That’s when the combative billionaire who has financed his own wars on guns, tobacco and Big Gulps took an interest in the war on coal.
Beyond Coal’s pivotal moment came at a meeting in Gracie Mansion about, of all things, education reform. Michael Bloomberg, the Wall Street savant-turned media mogul-turned New York City mayor, was looking for a new outlet for his private philanthropy. It quickly became clear that education reform would not be that outlet.
“It was a terrible meeting in every way, and Mike was angry,” recalls his longtime adviser, Kevin Sheekey. “I said: ‘Look, if you don’t like this idea, that’s fine. We’ll bring you another.’ He said: ‘No, I want another now.’”
As it happened, Sheekey had just eaten lunch with Carl Pope, who was starting a $50 million fundraising drive to expand Beyond Coal’s staff to 45 states. The cap-and-trade plan that Obama supported to cut carbon emissions had stalled in Congress, and the carbon tax that Bloomberg supported was going nowhere as well. Washington was gridlocked. But Pope had explained to Sheekey that shutting down coal plants at the state and local level could do even more for the climate—and have a huge impact on public health issues close to his boss’s heart.
“That’s a good idea,” Bloomberg told Sheekey. “We’ll just give Carl a check for the $50 million. Tell him to stop fundraising and get to work.”
Bloomberg had never thought of himself as a Sierra Club kind of guy. But he saw coal as a killer, as well as the main threat to the climate, and the Club was in the field doing something about it. His only demand was a more analytical approach to the war on coal, with measurable deliverables, complex predictive models for vulnerable plants, and KPI—Key Performance Indicators, as Pope later learned.
“The Sierra Club had never heard of KPI,” Pope says. “We just had a gut instinct for what would work. The mayor said: ‘Oh, no, no. This will be data-driven.’”
On a sweltering day in July 2011, Bloomberg announced his gift to the Club on a boat he had chartered on the Potomac River, in front of a 63-year-old coal plant he had always noticed on flights into Washington. He saw it as a perfect illustration of the city’s inability to get anything done.
“You’d think the politicians would at least care about the air they breathe themselves!” Bloomberg marveled to me in a recent interview.
That plant on the Potomac is now closed. So is the Massachusetts plant that Mitt Romney once said “kills people,” a line Obama actually used against him in coal-state campaign ads in 2012. So are all of Chicago’s plants, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasted in his first campaign ad in 2015. Overall, the 190 plants that U.S. utilities have agreed to retire will eliminate about one fourth of America’s coal-fired capacity, a total of 79 gigawatts. And for every watt of coal capacity they’re taking out of commission, they’ve already installed a watt of wind or solar capacity. The Clean Air Task Force estimate of coal-fired premature deaths is down to about 7,500 a year, a decrease of 5,500 since Beyond Coal went national. And Bloomberg’s early support has helped attract more than $100 million from top foundations and wealthy individuals like the Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Steyer, the climate movement’s top political donor.
“It’s a reminder that you can do a lot with no help from Congress,” Bloomberg says. “I just wish we could point out the specific people who were saved.”
To coal backers, Beyond Coal is pure urban elitist lunacy, the kind of nightmare you get when a nanny-state mayor from New York hooks up with eco-radicals from San Francisco and a liberal president in Washington. Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma—chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, author of “The Greatest Hoax,” thrower of a Senate-floor snowball designed to highlight the folly of global-warming alarmism—told me it’s hard to believe some Americans actually want to keep our abundant energy resources in the ground.
“It’s a war on all fossil fuels, and coal is the No. 1 target,” Inhofe says. “You got a president who doesn’t care how many jobs it costs, and rich people who don’t care how much money they spend. They can do a lot of damage.”
I got to watch the war in Inhofe’s state, and the damage wasn’t getting done the way Inhofe imagined. The job creators were siding with the environmentalists. Economics was the most powerful weapon in the Sierra Club’s arsenal.
At a dry hearing in a drab courtroom in Oklahoma City, a methodical Beyond Coal attorney named Kristin Henry, whose bio identifies her as “one of the few environmentalists who would never be caught wearing Birkenstocks,” was pinning down an Oklahoma Gas & Electric executive with a barrage of wouldn’t-you-agrees, isn’t-it-trues, and would-it-be-fair-to-say’s. The power company was out of compliance with a federal air-quality rule called “regional haze,” so it was offering to convert one of its two coal plants into a natural gas plant. Henry knew she couldn’t stop that. But OG&E also wanted to install massive new scrubbers on the other plant so it could keep burning coal for decades to come. Henry was determined to stop that.
In the 90 minutes Henry spent cross-examining OG&E’s Joseph Rowlett in early March, she didn’t ask a single question about climate or public health. She focused exclusively on OG&E’s request for the largest rate increase in state history, a 15 percent hike to finance the utility’s $700 million compliance plan. Through her deadpan, leading questions, she portrayed OG&E as a company desperate to get its customers to foot the bill to prop up an inefficient plant, pursuing retrofits it would never consider if its own shareholders had to swallow the costs, operating in a dream world where regional haze was coal’s only challenge. At one point, she got Rowlett to admit his calculations assumed there would be no additional coal regulations for the next thirty years, even though the EPA intends to finalize at least four new coal regulations this year alone.
“Isn’t it true you’re assuming zero over the next 30 years?” Henry asked.
Rowlett paused a few seconds. “That’s right,” he replied.
The Sierra Club, even though it didn’t sound much like the Sierra Club, was clearly in hostile political territory. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a conservative Republican who has spearheaded a national campaign to protect fossil fuels from legal challenges, had joined OG&E in fighting the EPA haze rule all the way to the Supreme Court. Now he was supposed to be representing consumers at the OG&E hearing before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, but he hadn’t even filed a brief about the record rate hike. “That’s unheard of,” one commission official told me. Pruitt didn’t attend the hearing, either—the day it began, he was in Tulsa with Mike Huckabee raising money for his PAC—but one of his deputies who did attend occasionally raised objections when OG&E witnesses were asked uncomfortable questions.
But if the political deck seemed stacked against the Sierra Club, Henry held the economic cards. In Oklahoma, coal imported from Wyoming now costs more per kilowatt hour than the abundant gas under the ground or the wind that famously comes sweeping down the plain. In another recent haze case, the Sierra Club cut a deal requiring Oklahoma’s other major utility to phase out its only coal plant and buy 200 megawatts of wind—and the bids came in so low, the utility ended up buying 600 megawatts of wind. That’s why Wal-Mart, the hospital group and the coalition of industrial ratepayers all supported Beyond Coal’s push for more wind in the OG&E case. Cheap electricity has a way of scrambling political alliances.
Henry and the lawyers for OG&E’s corporate customers formed a kind of tag team, taking turns blasting the company for refusing to even study new wind power. They repeatedly pointed out that in-state competitors as well as Florida and New Mexico utilities were buying Oklahoma wind for just 2 cents per kilowatt hour, even cheaper than coal without pollution controls, while OG&E hadn’t purchased new wind in four years—even though its ads boasted about its commitment to wind. When its witnesses claimed their transmission lines were too congested to add new wind, Henry produced internal documents suggesting the congestion could be fixed for about 3 percent of the cost of the new coal scrubbers. As she pointed out, other Oklahoma utilities have much higher percentages of wind power on their systems.
Closing coal plants can sound radical, but Henry framed it for the Republican utility commissioners as the conservative response to EPA rules, avoiding the risk of “stranded” investments in outdated plants that might have to be shut down anyway. The most economical way to meet haze limits, she suggested, would be to stop burning the coal that causes the haze. Al Armendariz, who was Obama’s Dallas-based regional EPA administrator and is now Beyond Coal’s Austin-based regional representative, says the Club’s victories in states like Georgia, Mississippi and Kentucky have helped normalize the idea of abandoning coal in Oklahoma.
“We get respect because of our track record,” Armendariz says. “When we say a utility isn’t acting prudently, people can’t just dismiss us as ‘Oh, of course the Sierra Club says that.’ They see how we keep winning. They see these big industrial customers agreeing with us. Then they look at the numbers and see we’re right.”
Still, there’s no denying the war on coal is leading America into uncharted territory. The Sierra Club wants to eliminate all coal power by 2030, but what will replace it? Wind and solar, despite their rapid Obama-era growth, still make up just 5 percent of U.S. power capacity. And while technologies to store renewable energy (such as Tesla’s newly announced battery packs) are getting cheaper, they’re still a rounding error on the grid. Beyond Coal’s leaders are content to push cleaner power and let utilities figure out how to deliver it, but as OG&E Vice President Paul Renfrow told me: “That’s easy for them to say. We have to keep the lights on.”
Inhofe thinks the Sierra Club is simply obsessed with rooting out fossil fuels, citing “the guy who wants to crucify people” as an example of its extremism. He meant Armendariz, who left the EPA after he was caught on tape suggesting that harsh sanctions for law-breaking oil and gas companies could scare others into compliance, just as public crucifixions helped keep the peace in Roman times.
“The Sierra Club wants to stop coal now?” Inhofe asked. “You’ll see, they’ll be after gas next.”
Long-term, he’s right. While the Club accepted some donations from natural gas interests under Pope, it is now formally committed to eliminating gas as well as coal by 2030, and it has helped block new gas plants in cities like Austin and Carlsbad, California. After its victory last week in Asheville, Beyond Coal vowed to keep fighting to overturn Duke Energy’s decision to build a new gas plant to replace its 50-year-old coal plant. Even Bloomberg thinks the Club’s opposition to the fracking boom that has helped replace so much domestic coal with domestic gas is silly.
That said, Beyond Coal’s leaders, including Armendariz, understand that Beyond Gas is more aspirational than practical for now. They deeply prefer renewables to gas, but they almost as deeply prefer gas to coal. In Oklahoma City, Henry grilled OG&E witnesses about why they wanted to spend $500 million on scrubbers for coal boilers that could be retrofitted to burn gas for just $70 million. She shredded the implausible assumptions OG&E had made in its economic models to make scrubbing coal look cheaper than converting to gas, forcing one witness to admit gas prices were already 25 percent lower than his low-cost scenario. I sat in on one friendly lunch the Club’s legal team had with lawyers for a Conoco Phillips front group; they all hoped to move OG&E beyond coal, and gas is clearly part of the short-term solution.
When Brune took over the Sierra Club in 2010, he halted the club’s gas-industry gifts. | Getty
“We want to be principled but pragmatic,” says Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who stopped the Club’s gas-industry gifts when he took over in 2010. “We’ve wrestled with this, and there’s a definite disagreement with Bloomberg. We don’t see gas as an environmental fix. But we acknowledge that we still need some gas.”
Coal is different. Bloomberg calls it “a dead man walking.” When he made his initial gift to the Sierra Club, the goal was to secure the retirements of one third of the coal fleet by 2015. The Club is only slightly behind schedule, and in April, Bloomberg came to Washington to announce another $30 million donation, with a new goal of retirement announcements for half of the fleet by 2017. “We’re doubling down on an incredibly successful strategy,” Bloomberg said.
The campaign’s leaders believe coal has already passed a tipping point toward oblivion. Coal giants like Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Walter Energy are struggling to stay afloat. Just last week, in addition to the retirement announcement for the Asheville plant—as well as another for a Milwaukee plant that wasn’t official enough for Beyond Coal to count as #191—the insurance giant AXA announced that it will sell off more than $500 million worth of coal investments, the largest financial institution to flee the space to date, while the EPA announced it was closing a loophole that allowed virtually unlimited emissions from malfunctioning coal plants, a response to yet another Sierra Club lawsuit. And the more dirty plants get shut down, the more residents near other dirty plants are asking: Why not ours?
It’s hard to change the status quo, no matter how compelling the economic logic. Beyond Coal does not just deploy data. It organizes rallies and petitions and float-ins on kayaks; it shames utility executives on billboards and airplane banners; it mobilizes its members to show up at boring hearings where showing up can make a difference. If the Oklahoma City case displayed the war on coal as a numerical dispute, another hearing I watched south of Detroit was more like a street fight.
River Rouge is a depressed community at the city’s edge, a blightscape of boarded-up bungalows, overgrown lots and pawn shops. There’s no grocery store and virtually no medical services, but there is a nice little park where kids play at the playground and adults fish in the Detroit River. Unfortunately, the park smells like rotten eggs, thanks to sulfur dioxide from a DTE Energy coal plant overlooking the playground. Michigan health officials have called this area “the epicenter of the state’s asthma burden.” The fish aren’t safe to eat, either, though people eat them.
“It’s just an unhealthy situation,” says Alisha Winters, a local resident and mother of seven children, two with asthma. “They figure they can get away with dumping on us.”
The EPA has called out this area’s elevated sulfur dioxide levels, and last year Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration floated a compliance plan that would have required DTE to upgrade the coal-fired River Rouge Power Plant or (more likely) close it. But DTE proposed an alternative plan with no costly upgrades, and the state quietly accepted it. The Sierra Club has been mobilizing opposition ever since, drawing an unusual coalition of local whites, African-Americans, Latinos and Arab-Americans—as well as a busload of white liberals from Ann Arbor—for an environmental hearing in mid-March. The hearing had to be moved from City Hall to a school auditorium to accommodate the groundswell of protests, a far cry from that Chicago-area hearing over a decade ago where the Sierra Club got frozen out.
“We’re getting people to cross borders, physical and imaginary,” says Rhonda Anderson, a sharecropper’s daughter who is now an organizer for Beyond Coal.
Plants that Beyond Coal helped shutter. Top row, l-r: the Boardman plant, Oregon, scheduled to close in 2020; the Fisk Generating Station, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood; the Harding Street power plant, Indiana. Middle Row: North Omaha Station, Nebraska; the American Electric Power plant in Ohio. Bottom row: the Centralia Steam Plant, Washington; the Reid-Gardner power station, Nevada; the Crawford Generating Station, Chicago. | AP and Getty Images
If the Oklahoma City hearing was financial, the River Rouge hearing was political, a multiracial show of force in “I Love Clean Air” T-shirts. Every speaker opposed the DTE plan, including an Indian-American medical student, an Arab-American law student, an African-American asthma educator, a Latina anti-poverty activist and a white nun. Ebony Elmore, a child care provider who lives a block from the plant, talked about her four siblings and three nieces with asthma, as well as her two parents with pulmonary disease. I happened to ask Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell, who was watching the testimony from the side of the hall, why she was there, just as another resident started telling a story about an 11-year-old local girl who died because she couldn’t get to her inhaler in time.
“That’s why I’m here,” Dingell whispered.
A few days later, Governor Snyder—whose top campaign supporters included one Michael Bloomberg—announced a new effort to cut Michigan’s reliance on coal. That would have been a huge political burden for Snyder if he had run for president in a GOP primary, where “anti-coal” will be an epithet like “anti-gun” or “anti-freedom,” but he decided not to run, and coal is becoming a huge economic burden for his industrial state.
The already frenetic national pace of plant retirements will have to double for Beyond Coal to meet its 2017 goal, but utilities will face daunting investment decisions over the next two years. The EPA recently settled a sulfur lawsuit with the Sierra Club that could replicate the River Rouge dilemma across the nation. The agency has also imposed regional haze plans that already are replicating the Oklahoma dilemma in Arizona, Arkansas and Texas. Today, Beyond Coal has more than 100 legal cases pending over power supply. Meanwhile, it’s pursuing a new strategy on the power demand side, pushing blue states like Oregon to stop importing coal-fired electricity, which could shutter plants in red states like Montana. Even inside Texas, the Club has worked with relatively progressive cities like Austin, San Antonio and El Paso to replace their coal power with renewables.
Beyond Coal is also continuing to lobby and litigate in Washington, pushing Obama to drop his “all-of-the-above” approach to energy and formally enlist in the war on coal. Obama has not been as maniacally anti-coal as the industry suggests, punting on ozone rules in his first term to avoid alienating voters in Ohio, issuing relatively weak restrictions on coal ash, taking a lenient approach to mining on public land, floating carbon rules with mild targets for the most coal-reliant states. Still, when you add up all he’s done and all he’s doing, you get a tremendously uncertain regulatory environment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky—whose wife, Elaine Chao, recently quit the Bloomberg Philanthropies board over coal—has urged states to defy the Clean Power Plan, but utilities with fiduciary responsibilities don’t engage in much civil disobedience. They have already shut down dozens of plants to comply with mercury rules the Supreme Court could still strike down, and they’re starting to think about carbon, too.
Some coal advocates still hold out hope that the decline can be reversed if Republicans can win the presidency and keep Congress. “We’ve got a Congress that’s sympathetic, but we’ve still got a bureaucracy running amok,” says Mike Duncan, the RNC chairman-turned-coal advocate. “That will play in 2016. Obviously, anytime you elect a leader, it’s important to this industry.”
If the EPA stands down under the next president, the pace of retirements could slow. But it probably won’t stop. The trends are too strong. Nilles recently met with leaders of the utility Southern Company, which has slashed its dependence on coal in half over the past five years. Its executives rejected his vision of a coal-free America by 2030, but some of them suggested 2050 could be realistic. In any case, the Sierra Club won a lot of coal fights during the pro-coal Bush administration, because they were ultimately local fights over local air.
The fights also have a global context. The Earth is already getting hotter, and the death of American coal would not avert a climate catastrophe if the rest of the world did not follow our lead. But the decline of American coal emissions will help U.S. negotiators insist that other countries do their part in the global negotiations in Paris. And while critics of climate action often grumble that it would be foolish for the U.S. to make sacrifices when China is still building a new coal plant every week, that’s no longer true. China actually decreased its coal use last year, and is shuttering all four plants in smog-shrouded Beijing. The trends killing coal in America—cheap gas, wind and solar; more energy efficiency; stricter regulations—are trending abroad as well. Cash-strapped U.S. mining firms are desperate to solve their domestic problems by selling more coal in foreign markets, but the Sierra Club has helped lead the fight to block six proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest, which will help keep even more coal in the ground.
There will be no formal surrender in the war on coal, no battleship treaty to mark the end. But Beyond Coal’s leaders believe they can finish most of their work setting the U.S. electric sector on a greener path over the next five years. The next phase of the war on carbon would be to try to electrify everything else—cars and trains that use oil-derived gasoline and diesel, as well as homes and businesses that rely on natural gas and heating oil. Nilles hopes power companies like OG&E and DTE that Beyond Coal has spent the last decade fighting with—but then cutting deals with—can become allies in Phase Two. And allies will be vital, because if King Coal seems like a rich and powerful enemy, it’s a pushover compared to Big Oil.
“Once we’ve taken out coal, we’ll need to take on oil, and who better to help than our new friends in the utility sector who can make money from electrification?” Nilles says with a grin. “It’s a long fight. This is how we win.”
Michael Grunwald firstname.lastname@example.org
What really keeps the lights on
Where’s solar, again?
05/26/2015 11:49 PM EDT
Solar and wind power get a lot of attention, but how much do they matter to America right now? Not nearly as much as coal and gas. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy, this chart tracks the slow shift in America’s power mix over the past 30 years. You can see natural gas creeping up recently, and nuclear power a consistent No.3, despite the fact that no new nuclear plants have been built since 1979.
So where’s the renewable energy we’ve been promised? Hydropower, the largest renewable, has been declining for a century as dams are broken up. Wind power, the great renewable success story so far, only ticks upward recently. Perhaps surprisingly, solar doesn’t even make a dent on this chart – it’s wrapped up here with “other,” including biomass and geothermal energy, each of which would barely register by itself.
5 reasons Obama’s transformative power plan won’t transform anything
By MICHAEL GRUNWALD
05/26/2015 11:47 PM EDT
Just about everyone seems to agree that President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan is an “ambitious” effort to rein in the electric sector’s carbon emissions. There’s intense debate whether it’s good-ambitious, a “sweeping” and “groundbreaking” effort to fight pollution and climate change, or bad-ambitious, a “draconian” and “job-killing” assault on the coal industry that will jack up America’s utility bills. But it’s been taken for granted on both sides that the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft regulations, expected to be finalized this summer, would smash the status quo.
Actually, they’re pretty weak.
This is partly because the Obama administration, understandably, wants the first-ever U.S. carbon limits to survive legal challenges, and to maintain enough political support to prevent Congress from shredding them. After she released the draft plan last June, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told me her goal was something “doable, reasonable, and practical,” not something utopian. The mere existence of carbon rules should send a signal to markets about greenhouse-gas emissions, adding to the riskiness of investments in coal plants that already face stricter limits on soot, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other toxics in the Obama era. The rules should also bolster Obama’s negotiators in this year’s global climate talks in Paris, sending a message that the U.S. is doing something about carbon.
But while environmentalists have hailed the Clean Power Plan as Obama’s crowning climate achievement, and Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have denounced it as climate radicalism, it doesn’t really anticipate more dramatic emissions reductions than we’re getting now. Overall, it seeks to cut power-sector emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. That sounds like a lot, but the ongoing transformation of the U.S. grid—a shift from carbon-intensive coal to lower-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon renewables, plus a general easing of electricity demand—has already gotten us almost halfway to that goal, and the Clean Power Plan hasn’t even taken effect yet. Utilities would have to cut emissions less than 1 percent a year to make it the rest of the way. At that tepid rate, it’s hard to see how America could fulfill Obama’s genuinely ambitious recent pledge to cut our entire economy’s emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025, since the coal-heavy power sector is clearly our lowest-hanging fruit.
The EPA expects to finalize the plan this summer, so it still could get stronger. And any plan that regulates carbon will qualify as “historic,” the other adjective you hear a lot in the current debate. In its current form, though, at least five elements of the Obama plan—its treatment of coal, its state targets, its treatment of renewables, its approach to bioenergy, and its timelines—are a long way from “ambitious.”
- CoalThe EPA insists the Clean Power Plan is about limiting carbon from power plants, not limiting coal. But let’s be honest: Limiting carbon from power plants means limiting coal, which produces 75 percent of the electricity sector’s emissions. That’s why critics have portrayed the plan as a nuclear weapon in the war on coal. The thing is, the draft rules won’t do much to coal. It’s already declining, but the plan doesn’t really aim to accelerate the decline.
One giveaway is the plan’s projection that U.S. coal generation will drop just 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It’s already dropped 20 percent—and aging coal plants with another 50 gigawatts of capacity, nearly 15 percent of the U.S. fleet, are already scheduled for retirement. In other words, the EPA expects the decline of coal to abate somewhat under the Clean Power Plan, even though the average coal plant is over 40 years old, nobody is planning new coal plants, and the coal industry is already scrambling to comply with a barrage of new clean-air and clean-water regulations that have nothing to do with carbon. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is almost on schedule to achieve its goal of retiring every U.S. coal plant by 2030, yet the EPA plan projects that 30 percent of our power will still come from coal that year. That would be a disaster for the climate.
In fairness, those lame EPA projections are not binding. And McCarthy herself told me not to put too much stock in them. In a November interview, she predicted that “in the end, you will probably see significantly more emissions reductions than we anticipated.” That’s almost certainly true, because utilities seem likely to keep retiring coal plants at a rapid rate. But Obama’s carbon rules do not seem likely to drive many of those retirements—and the EPA’s nationwide projections are not the only giveaway.
- State targetsThe Clean Power Plan doesn’t impose strict emissions limits; it merely assigns states targets for reducing their carbon intensity. The plan doesn’t mandate how to achieve those targets, either; it lets the states chart their own paths. While overwrought critics squeal about bureaucratic tyranny, the EPA’s documents outlining its plan are almost laughably deferential, full of references to “maximizing flexibility,” “making sure states have the flexibility they need,” “offering states broad flexibility,” and so on. This actually makes a lot of sense, practically as well as legally and politically. Washington bureaucrats don’t need to micromanage how states decide to cut their emissions. They just need to make sure emissions get cut.
The glaring hole in the plan is not the flexibility it gives states to meet targets, but the targets themselves. The states with the deepest addictions to coal—usually in the form of filthy plants built before the passage of the Clean Air Act—have some of the weakest targets for reducing their emissions. It’s amusing that McConnell is calling for states to rise up and defy the EPA, since his home state of Kentucky will only have to cut its emissions 18 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and it’s already retiring so many inefficient coal boilers that state officials have said they doubt they’ll need to shut down any more to meet their target. The EPA came up with similarly modest targets for coal-rich states like West Virginia, Wyoming and Indiana. McCarthy told me the agency was trying to avoid years of negotiations about what was achievable, but when a plan sets targets that are likely to be achieved even without the plan, it’s hard to see the point of the plan.
- RenewablesThe U.S. is enjoying a green revolution, with wind power up threefold in the Obama era and solar power up more than tenfold, thanks to a remarkable decline in costs that has continued to this day. But Obama’s EPA apparently believes this boom is about to go bust. If its projections for coal are unambitious, its projections for renewables are downright ridiculous, essentially assuming a collapse of America’s fastest-growing electricity sector.
For example: At least five states—Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota—are already producing more renewable electricity than they would be expected to produce under the Clean Power Plan by 2030. And at least seventeen states already have renewable power targets that are higher than the EPA’s. The Clean Power Plan target for California is 21 percent renewable by 2030, even though it’s required by law to reach 33 percent by 2020; the plan’s target for Hawaii is a mere 10 percent by 2030, while the state’s official goal is 40 percent. Overall, the draft EPA plan predicted just 21 gigawatts of new renewable-power capacity nationwide by 2030; the U.S. installed about half that much just last year.
I offered to bet McCarthy that the U.S. would beat the draft plan’s projections for renewables, but she said she agreed they were too low. Wind and solar power are already much cheaper than the EPA assumed when devising its models. But the body language out of the EPA, which already faces Clean Power Plan lawsuits by a dozen states, has not suggested that the final plan will be dramatically stronger.
- BioenergyWhen environmentalists have aired concerns about the plan, they’ve usually focused on its favorable treatment of nuclear power and natural gas. But nuclear power, setting aside itsmany challenges, is carbon-free. Why wouldn’t it get favorable treatment in carbon regulations? Natural gas does emit carbon, but much less than coal, so it would also look like an attractive substitute in just about any carbon regime. But as I wrote in January, the plan’s favorable treatment of bioenergy—power derived from trees, crops, or other plants—could be much more problematic.
The problem is that an EPA policy memo suggested the plan will treat most bioenergy as carbon-neutral, which could encourage massive amounts of deforestation, which would not be carbon-neutral at all. The EPA has waffled a bit about the memo, so it’s not clear whether the final plan’s approach to bioenergy will be as generous to the timber industry. Suffice to say that some bioenergy critics believe a lenient approach could end up producing far more emissions through the cutting and burning of trees than the rest of the Clean Power Plan would reduce.
- TimelinesIf the Obama administration finalizes the Clean Power Plan this summer, and if it isn’t held up by litigation, states will be required to submit implementation plans by June 2016. Not really, though. They’ll be allowed to request extensions of up to two years. Then they EPA will have another year to review their plans. They won’t be required to begin implementation until 2020—assuming no litigation delays, and no reversals by future administrations. And when McCarthy spoke to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in February, she hinted that the EPA might give states even more time.
“You and I know that flexibility is the key to this proposal,” she said.
This is all a bit odd, because the EPA has set “interim goals” for 2020 that are much more ambitious than its targets for 2030. Overall power-sector emissions are somehow expected to drop more than 10 percent within the next five years, before implementation even begins, then less than 5 percent over the next ten years, after implementation is in full swing. It’s as if the carbon rules were supposed to relieve the pressure on states to reduce carbon.
In fact, they were supposed to minimize the risk of legal and political reversals. McCarthy is a climate hawk, and Obama cares about his climate legacy; his 2009 stimulus bill helped create the renewables boom, and a host of other EPA regulations have helped decimate the coal industry. There is every reason to believe the U.S. will continue to reduce its emissions whether or not the Clean Power Plan turns out to be ambitious.
But an ambitious plan would reduce more emissions. And isn’t that supposed to be the point?
Michael Grunwald email@example.com
- Scott Mahaskey | POLITICO
‘We are definitely heading toward a cleaner future’
Ernie Moniz is about as wildly optimistic as a cabinet secretary is allowed to be. And he’s got a plan.
By MICHAEL GRUNWALD
05/26/2015 11:44 PM EDT
Dr. Ernest Moniz, the MIT physicist who is President Obama’s energy secretary, has been busy lately negotiating the nitty-gritty details of the Iran nuclear deal. But he’s now back to his day job, where his main focus is trying to nudge America toward a climate-friendly future. He looks like a founding father, and he says we’re in the midst of another revolution, a transformation driven by the plunging costs of green technologies like wind power, solar power, LED bulbs and advanced batteries, as well as a fracking boom that has brought the U.S. percentage of petroleum imports to its lowest level since the 1950s. In an interview with The Agenda’s Michael Grunwald, Moniz talked about the low-carbon revolution he believes has already begun—and why he thinks even skeptical Republicans will eventually get on board.
Michael Grunwald: There’s been spectacular progress in bringing down the cost of solar, wind, LEDs, batteries for electric vehicles. In the past, you’ve been pretty bullish on clean coal, but it’s seemed like a real disappointment – we see the skyrocketing costs at the Kemper plant, the cancellation of FutureGen 2.0. Have you been disappointed?
Ernest Moniz: Well, you know I think technologists, and I guess I’m one of those, are always optimistic and trying to speed things up. [But] let me also draw a very important distinction: The projects we support [at the Energy Department] are very aggressive projects. They’re typically looking to capture 90 percent of their carbon, and as with Kemper, with multiple product streams, not just carbon. But if you look at the EPA’s proposed rule for new power plants that came out last year and you look at the target in terms of emissions, if you start with a very highly efficient coal plant, a new, ultra-super-critical plant, the amount of capture required to meet that proposed rule is roughly a third – a very far cry from 90-plus percent.
MG: Back in 2007, you made the obvious point that coal was cheap. But now with mercury, carbon and ozone coming up, regional haze – all these different regulations – it seems like coal is less cheap, especially with gas and wind and solar coming down so much in price.
EM: Right. And the capital requirements for a new coal plant are substantially higher than for a gas plant. And substantially higher than wind. Obviously, wind has a lower capacity factor, but even now we’re seeing wind capacity factors in the 40-plus percent range, and I think the typical coal plant capacity factor is only in the sixties. So you know, a lot of competition out there for coal. [Laughs.]
MG: Coal advocates have this new “Cold in the Dark” campaign — basically, if we get rid of coal there’s going to be no reliability. We also hear a lot about distributed generation and too many renewables hurting the reliability of the grid. Are you worried, or have those concerns been overblown?
EM: Well look, we need more detailed analysis. But I’ll give you one example where – this was in our quadrennial energy review – that really needs to be taken with a grain of salt. That is the idea that somehow continued expansion of natural gas in the power sector would result in large infrastructure challenges. Well, the reality is that we did analytical work and what we found is that a very substantial expansion of gas would not significantly strain, at least at the national level, natural gas transmission pipes. There has been a big buildup of the transmission pipeline in the last 15 years and a lot of overcapacity.
On distributed generation, that raises a couple of issues. One, obviously: There is the issue of effective integration in the distribution system, and that will be part of a smart-grid approach. But the other thing I want to emphasize is that – and we’re seeing the beginnings of this right now clearly – is that the increase in distributed generation, combined with net metering or smart metering, does also provide a challenge to the traditional utility business model. And so it’s not only the hardware. Business models are going to have to adjust to new realities.
MG: The administration is letting Shell drill in the Arctic. You get a lot of Republicans complaining that you’re not drill-baby-drill enough, but you also have enviros saying you need to start leaving fossil fuels in the ground. You guys say you’re all-of-the-above. How do you strike that balance?
EM: Well let me just start with what “all of the above” is. Again, we start with the clear commitment to lower carbon. So “all of the above” is in the context of continued progress toward significant carbon reduction. Obviously, efficiency, renewables, nuclear, fit in to that framework, and cost reduction, cost reduction, cost reduction, is a huge part of the game. As for fossil fuels in the low carbon world, for coal, carbon capture [is] quite critical. In terms of gas, [it’s displacing] coal as natural gas prices remain quite low. Of course, eventually, in the long term, natural gas itself would need carbon capture for a very low carbon world. That’s the bridge concept of natural gas.
Finally, if I go to oil, the impact of increased oil production has been a dramatic decrease in our imports. The fraction of our petroleum crude and petroleum products we import has now gone back to the level of 1952. And that has tremendous economic impacts. However, in the low-carbon context, we remain completely focused on continuing to minimize our oil dependence, and we are doing that with three clear tracks. One is fuel-efficient vehicles, and there the CAFE standards for 2025 are central. Second is alternative lower-carbon fuels, specifically our push on next-generation biofuels. And third, the move toward electrification of vehicles, and there again we’ve had a dramatic cost reduction of batteries, but we’ve still got another factor of two or three to go. But [we’ve made] tremendous progress. [W]e are committed to this low carbon world and are doing so within this “all of the above” approach.
MG: Obviously not everyone is committed to this low carbon world. You’ve talked about how it’s time to stop debating climate change and time to start believing. Just recently Jeb Bush, who’s considered one of the more moderate in the Republican field, said that’s “arrogant.” You’re a physicist, not a politician. What has it been like dealing with Republicans on this?
EM: Well frankly I think, by and large, there’s a lot of recognition that we have to address climate change. The debate then becomes about what’s the scope and scale. There are few who are still in this fruitless science-denial stage, but if you were a corporate CEO and your risk manager told you that there is a 90-plus percent probability that something really bad is going to happen if you don’t start taking some action, and you say, Oh, I like that 10 percent or that 5 percent, you wouldn’t be in that job very long. And I think there’s a lesson there.
MG: Republicans are still trying to cut the budget for clean energy research, development, innovation. You hear from them a lot: Well, if the cost of renewables is so low now, then why do we need to subsidize it?
EM: It’s about continued cost reduction. Let me give you a couple of examples. OK, let’s say wind. In good wind locations, we are basically in the five cents per kilowatt-hour range, but that’s in the best wind sites. So we just released a report this week that says if we raised the hub heights, we go to longer blades, etc., basically if we can capture lower-quality wind resources, there’s a tremendous expansion opportunity in the United States, literally opening up the footprint for effective wind by a half to two thirds. And then if you look at what we’re doing in R&D, we’re not interested in continuing to support the existing successful technology, but we are looking at off-shore wind. It’s got a very, very large cost trajectory that it’s got to go down to become competitive. So why do we support it if it’s so expensive today? Well again, it’s an enormous resource. It could have a tremendous capacity factor. So that’s kind of the spirit. At one time, the department supported the technologies that are becoming successful today. Now we’re supporting the ones that can come in 10, 20 years down the road.
MG: On a lot of this stuff, there was a feeling in the past, you’d hear from Republicans, “Oh, well, China’s never going to cut its emissions, so what’s the point of us doing it??” Now it seems like China is doing a lot of this – they’re building the wind, they’re building the transmission lines, they’re building the solar. So is China now winning this race?
EM: I think the U.S.-China [emissions reductions] announcement by Presidents Obama and Xi really has changed the nature of the discussion on climate internationally, and as you have just implied, should be even more changing the domestic discussion. China is doing something, and actually doing something pretty serious. China remains a very large market for expansion [of renewable energy] because they are still in the 6-7 percent annual growth stage. So in terms of deployment, they are a very important driver. In terms of innovation, I would still stack us up very favorably. What we need to do is make sure that as we develop these technologies we not only deploy them in the United States, but we also capture the very, very significant export markets, China being part of that, but only one part of that. I think we’re in good shape in terms of maintaining a very strong innovation edge, but you don’t stay there by sitting still, and that’s why have to keep pushing.
MG: Tesla just came out with this home storage battery. Is storage of renewable energy the next new frontier, do you see? As a technologist, when you look into the next few years, what do you think will be the big innovations that are going to change the world?
EM: Well, storage has always been talked about as one of the major game changers. A lot of the discussion has been on storage for vehicles, which of course Tesla has also engaged in, storage for utility scale. But I think the recent announcement, I think the idea of distributed storage could be – absolutely could be a big game changer. Now, we still need to keep working on cost reductions to keep driving things down before there’s big market penetration. But that’s what we are constantly doing.
MG: You said we’re in a revolution. Have we passed the tipping point? Have we gone from dirty to clean, and is it all going to be one direction from here on in?
EM: Oh, I think so, absolutely. And that is both policy- and technology-driven. Of course, we’re all working hard to go to Paris and to see ambitious declarations of targets backed up to the extent possible by credible implementation programs, globally. And of course the U.S., China, Europe, and I really want to note the Mexican declaration as the first big commitment from a major emerging economy. So I think the pattern is very clear, and I think we are definitely heading toward a cleaner future.
Michael Grunwald firstname.lastname@example.org
What politicians talk about when they talk about coal
Data scientists graphed every word from members of Congress about coal. Here’s what they found.
By THE LAZER LAB
05/26/2015 11:43 PM EDT
It’s easy to say that coal carries political weight in America, but who actually talks about “coal” in Washington — and why? Using a huge trove of the public statements of members of Congress, we crunched the data from 2010 through mid-2014 to find out.
The first thing we learned is that “coal” is strongly partisan. Other energy terms we have looked at — even “fracking” and “oil” — tend to be used by both parties more or less evenly. Coal, however, skews very strongly Republican, as the graph below shows. In fact, Republicans use the word “coal” more than twice as frequently as Democrats, likely reflecting the current domination of the coal debate by the GOP.
And when you look at what else politicians say when they talk about coal, it gets even more illuminating. We took all of the public statements by members of Congress during this period that included the word coal, and then ranked the most frequently observed words in these statements. Here are the top 10 most Democratic words from the 113th Congress (words that Democrats use frequently but Republicans do not), and the top 10 most Republican words:
Clearly, America’s elected officials are having very different conversations about coal. For Republicans, coal is about the economy—guaranteeing energy supplies and jobs. For Democrats, coal is about the environment (“clean”), health and protection. For Republicans, coal is about regulation (presumably, avoiding it) and cost. For Democrats, coal is about the public and impact on tomorrow. And, notably, Republicans persistently link the world coal with references to President Barack Obama, whom they accuse of waging a war against it, while Democrats dominate the use of “senator” (likely a reflection that the Senate was the locus of Democratic legislative power during much of this survey).
Finally, the giant graph below is a glimpse at the larger universe of political discussion of coal. Bigger words appear in a larger number of statements about “coal.” The redder a word, the more likely it’s Republican; the bluer, the more exclusively Democratic. A few words, like “act” are almost perfectly purple, evenly used by both. A line between two words means that they often appear in the same document. If words appear near each other on the network map it generally means that they are grouped with each other and other similar words.
At the center of the network are Republican words, reflecting the rhetorical dominance of the domain by the GOP. And around the periphery are Democratic words, with an environmental cluster (“environment,” “clean,” “future”) at the bottom. Other terms like “climate”, “health” and “protect” are also more likely to be used by the Democrats in Congress.
Authors: David Lazer, Katherine Ognyanova, and Oren Tsur.
David Lazer is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University, Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School, and founder of Volunteer Science. Oren Tsur is a postdoctoral fellow in computational social science and natural language processing at Northeastern University and Harvard University. Katherine Ognyanova is a postdoctoral fellow in computational social science and network science at Northeastern University and Harvard University.
The Lazer Lab
Brian Stauffer for POLITICO
Revolution? More like a crawl
The energy visionary Vaclav Smil — Bill Gates’s favorite author — says that when our leaders promise quick energy transformations, they’re getting it very wrong.
By VACLAV SMIL
05/26/2015 11:42 PM EDT
America in 2015 finds itself almost in a new energy reality. It recently became the world’s second-largest extractor of crude oil, and since 2010 has been the leading producer of natural gas, whose abundant and inexpensive supply has been accelerating the retreat from coal as a national source of electric power.
Some see this as the beginning of an even bigger transition, one in which America’s dominant status as a producer of hydrocarbons ends its allies’ dependence on Russian gas and makes OPEC terminally irrelevant, while its entrepreneurial drive helps it quickly advance to harness renewables and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
All of this sounds too good to be true — and it is. Indefensible claims of imminent transformative breakthroughs are an unfortunately chronic ingredient of American energy debates.
Smil says the U.S. is undoubtedly experiencing two notable energy transitions — from coal to natural gas and from fossil fuels renewables in electricity generation. | Andreas Laszlo Konrath / Trunk Archive
When American leaders talk about energy transitions, they tend to sell them as something that can be accomplished in a matter of years. Al Gore, perhaps the country’s most prominent climate activist, proposed to “re-power” America, making its electricity carbon-free, within 10 years, calling the goal “achievable, affordable and transformative.” That was in 2008, when fossil fuels produced 71 percent of American electricity; last year 67 percent still came from burning fossil fuels.
President Barack Obama, who has a strong rhetorical dislike of oil — although kerosene distilled from it fuels the 747 that carries him to play golf in Hawaii — promised in his 2011 State of the Union message that the country would have 1 million electric cars by 2015. That goal was abandoned by the Department of Energy just two years later.
For years, even decades, we have been on the verge of mass deployment of (take your pick) fast breeder reactors, of coal-fired electricity generating plants that capture and sequester all of their CO2, of fuel cell-powered cars running on hydrogen, if not a complete hydrogen economy. We’ve been promised electric cars that will not only cost nothing to run but will also power houses while sitting in garages; or microorganisms genetically engineered to ooze gasoline.
The reality of energy transitions is very different. Too many modern observers have become misled by the example of electronics, in which advances have followed Moore’s law — the now 50-year-old prediction that the number of components on a microchip will double every 18 months. This has allowed exceptionally rapid progress. But the fundamental physical realities that determine progress of energy systems do not behave that way: they are improving steadily, but far more slowly. Moore’s law implies an exponential growth rate of 46 percent a year. The analogues in energy are not even close: Since 1900, the efficiency of electricity generation in large power plants has been rising by less than 2 percent a year, advances in lighting have boosted its efficiency by less than 3 percent a year, and the energy cost of steel, our civilization’s most essential metal, has been falling by less than 2 percent a year.
Moore’s Law means performance doubles in a year and a half. Change at the rate of energy systems means doubling efficiencies, or halving the costs, in 35 years — a vastly longer timespan.
These things might sound technical. They are not. Accepting this reality is essential in order to chart a path for lasting progress: sensible policies cannot be built on mistaken beliefs or on wishful thinking. In the conversation about America’s — and the world’s — energy future, reality demands we keep a few important principles in mind.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. is experiencing two notable energy transitions, from coal to natural gas and from fossil fuels to new renewables in electricity generation. These shifts are welcome because they promise to bring cleaner and less carbon-intensive supplies. But they cannot be rapid, and they bring their own technical, economic and social challenges. Energy infrastructure is the world’s most elaborate and expensive, and the longevity and inertia of many large energy enterprises make it impossible for any large, complex national system (to say nothing of the global level) to reconfigure itself even in three or four decades.
How slow are these transitions, really? To answer this question I recently undertook a comprehensive study of energy transitions –- both at the global level and for the world’s major economies (U.S., China, Japan, Russia, U.K., France) — for a period of 150 years. Starting with the epochal move from wood to coal that defined the second half of the 19th century, through the more recent shifts from fossil fuels to renewables like wind turbines and solar cells, I measured how long it typically takes for a particular energy source to go from 5 percent of the market (that is, more than a negligible contribution) to claim large shares (25 percent to 30 percent) of total energy supply.
The repeated answer is that it takes decades of gradual penetration. After crude oil claimed 5 percent of the total American energy supply in 1905, it took 28 years to reach 25 percent, and the rise was even slower for natural gas, 33 years from 1924 to 1957. Today, despite the attention lavished on solar cells and wind, those up-and-coming renewables have yet to reach even the 5 percent mark.
Globally, energy transitions have been even slower than in the U.S., with crude oil taking 40 years to go from 5 percent to 25 percent of the global primary energy supply, and it looks as though natural gas will take 60 years to do the same.
Coal’s decline from being the source of half of the U.S. electricity in 2005 to less than two-fifths in 2015 has been the result of an inevitable process of closing down coal-fired power plants (due to their age and new mercury and air toxics standards), accelerated by the availability of cheap natural gas. But this does not mean an imminent end of coal. In absolute terms, coal combustion in U.S. power plants will have declined by only 2 percent between 2013 and 2015, and it is projected to be down by another 0.6 percent by the end of 2016 — hardly a precipitous drop.
Electricity generation by new renewables has been growing fastest, but it is far from taking over: at 7 percent in 2014 it was still only about a third of all electricity generated by the aging nuclear stations. And because electricity is only a part of the overall energy supply, the contribution of new renewables (wind and solar) to the country’s total primary energy consumption (including all industrial and transportation fuels) remains very modest: it rose from just 0.1 percent in the year 2000 to 1 percent in 2010 and to 2.2 percent in 2014.
The U.S. is still an overwhelmingly fossil-fueled society, albeit a bit less so than it was a generation ago. Even if the new renewables keep on advancing at the same rate as they have been so far — a rate hard to maintain as the aggregate solar and wind capacities to be installed every year get progressively larger — fossil fuels would be supplying 78 percent of the U.S. primary energy in 2030 and still about 75 percent by 2040.
Our increasingly electrified, electronic and data-driven society places steadily rising demand on reliable baseload power — that is, on electricity available 24/7/365. Servers never sleep, nor does air conditioning during hot nights, and in Asia’s megacities subways and electric trains take only brief naps between midnight and 5 a.m.
Electricity generating plants burning coal or natural gas or fissioning uranium can be run all night, or all winter, to supply baseload power, with nuclear reactors operating about 90 percent of the time. Not so wind turbines: they generate electricity only while sufficiently strong wind is blowing (and hence work 25-35 percent of the hours available every year).
Photovoltaic solar generation peaks around noon under clear skies and stops later in the day. Both wind and sun experiences major seasonal downturns. For example, the northern Plains are America’s windiest region, but in winter — when the electricity is needed most through cold and short days — the Arctic air forms semi-stationary high pressure cells that produce low temperatures and calm winds.
The only way to negate these longer-lasting wind and solar lows is to bank the electricity generated during sunny and windy days — and that means massive, grid-scale storage. Our batteries are getting better, but the only commercially available massive (gigawatt-scale) electricity storage is still a 19th-century technique first commercially deployed during the 1890s: pumping water up to a mountain reservoir with cheaper nighttime electricity, and then releasing it during the hours of high daily demand. (This practice results in a net energy loss of about 25 percent and, obviously, it cannot be used in flat regions.) More than anything else, electricity storage is the key technical breakthrough needed if the new renewables are to claim a substantial share of primary energy in modern electricity-intensive economies, but the progress will be, as it has been, slow and incremental.
America tends to assume Silicon Valley-style innovators can drive quick and transformative changes, but even Silicon Valley’s would-be masters of the universe have discovered that energy transitions are subject to time spans and technical constraints that defy their reach. Google launched its “Clean Energy 2030” in October 2008, aiming to eliminate U.S. use of coal and oil for electricity generation by 2030, and cut oil use for cars by 44 percent. It was completely abandoned in November 2011.
Elon Musk, the entrepreneur some U.S. media have proclaimed to be a man more inventive than Edison, makes much-praised electric cars — but Tesla ended 2014 with another loss after selling only 17,300 vehicles in a market of 16.5 million units, claiming a share of 0.1 percent of the U.S. car market. Obviously, it will take many years before Tesla becomes anything but a market curiosity.
What then is the best course to follow? Not a single route, but a combination of advances.
First, even after more than a century of improvements, all fossil fuel conversions can be made substantially more efficient and work with reduced environmental impacts. But these solutions must go beyond the converters themselves: we already have 97-percent-efficient natural gas furnaces, but their full benefit can be realized only in superinsulated houses with triple windows; and the benefits of cleaner and more efficient car engines will be largely negated as long as people drive ever-more massive SUVs.
Second, the desirable development of new renewables should not be guided by wishful preferences and arbitrary targets (30 percent generated by wind by 2030), but it should proceed at a determined but measured pace that would ensure lasting benefits.
Third, beneath (or above) this all is the fundamental question of what is the energy use for. If it is to enable long, healthy and productive lives in safe and caring societies, then the U.S. has not done a very good job. America’s per capita energy use is nearly twice as high as in Germany, France or Japan, but America’s health care and educational achievements and subjective satisfaction with life are not twice the EU or Japanese level: indeed, in many of these measures the U.S. does not place even among the world’s top 20 countries. Using more energy, albeit more efficiently and with lower specific environmental effects by deploying new conversion techniques, is unlikely to change the country’s fortunes — but no serious consideration has been given to how to use less, much less. Indeed, such a suggestion seems to be entirely subversive, and quintessentially unAmerican.
Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and author of numerous books on energy and the environment, most recently “Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses.”