Coal’s Decline and New Possibilities

Big Bend Power Plant near Tampa, Florida.

This post was written by Kailie Melchior, High Risk Energy Intern with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) with contributions from SACE’s High Risk Energy Coordinator, Adam Reaves.

In April of this year, leading coal mining company Peabody Energy filed for bankruptcy. The company faced growing competition from cleaner sources of power generation, including solar and wind, and increasing efforts to protect public health and the environment from the devastating impacts of coal mining, transport, burning, and waste storage. It’s important to remind ourselves why coal’s decline and our transition to renewable energy is so important for our health and environment and also to start the conversation about what happens next.

Burning coal is bad for our health and environment

For many years, it has been clear that burning coal, the least efficient of the fossil fuels in terms of the amount of energy gained vs. CO2 released, is unhealthy for us. Burning it releases numerous toxic chemicals and particulates that reduce life expectancy by affecting not only the human respiratory system but also the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an average year, a typical coal plant generates 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, an amount equivalent to chopping down 161 million trees. It also creates 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide and 220 tons of hydrocarbons, which lead to the creation of smog. The same average coal-fired power plant generates 170 pounds of mercy, a huge amount considering that only 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited in a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.

Burning coal has been known to trigger asthma attacks, play a role in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and an increase the likelihood of lung cancer. These are very serious consequences not captured in the cost of coal, especially when, for plants like CD McIntosh in Lakeland, Florida, more cost-effective fuel options exist.

The efficiency and cost-effectiveness of coal-fired power plants has been on a steady decline for many years now. Over the past five years alone, the industry lost 94% of its market value. Once solar and wind projects are built, their power will likely be cheaper, with a much lower impact on the surrounding land, water, and air. As more renewables come online, coal-fired power will be an even less economical option.

While this is good news for our health and our environment, there are other serious problems that must be addressed.

Will taxpayers foot the bill?

Mountaintop removal coal mine site in southern Appalachia.

Historically, the abandonment of hundreds of mines led Congress to pass a law in 1977 called the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) that required coal companies to return mined land to a usable state after mining, called “reclamation.” Left untreated, mine sites exacerbate public health risks in many ways, including by polluting drinking water.

While the industry was booming, Congress decided that instead of requiring coal companies to purchase insurance that would cover the cost of these reclamations, it would allow many coal companies to “self-bond” – essentially allowing them to write an “I owe you” for reclamations.

Now that the world’s largest private sector miner of coal, Peabody Energy, has filed for bankruptcy, self-bonding is coming under increased and much-needed scrutiny. It’s far from certain how Peabody or the rest of the industry will pay for huge reclamation projects. The National Resources Defense Council is warning that taxpayers could be on the hook for nearly $3 billion in reclamation costs.

Under SMCRA, mining companies are supposed to be responsible for the reclamation of mine sites. We need to demand that our local, state, and federal governments require these companies to take care of the problems they created, and not put the responsibility on the taxpayer.

But that’s just one of many challenges facing our country as we transition from coal to a renewable energy future.

Florida's Solar Uprising Rally Thursday, April 10, 2014 at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. ©2014, Chris Carnevale

What happens next?

Bankruptcy and the decline of the coal industry raise other hard-hitting economic issues: job losses, cuts to local tax bases, and more. These issues are not unsolvable, and it is critical that we ensure the transition away from fossil fuels doesn’t leave people and communities behind. We need action from federal, state and local governments to ensure that there are smart programs in place to train workers for employment in the new energy economy and mitigate lost revenue to communities.

At the federal level, the POWER National Dislocated Worker Grant (POWER DWG) and National Emergency Grant (NEG) are helping connect displaced coal miners in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia with resources and programs to help them transition.

Many coal miners have a transferable skill set ranging from mechanical and electrical expertise to critical thinking and problem solving. Solar companies are looking for these types of skilled laborers. As of November 2015, the solar industry employed 208,859 workers, more than the roughly 150,000 jobs remaining in the coal industry nationally, and the solar industry is expecting to continue expanding.

Beyond the solar industry, Bit Source, a Kentucky tech startup, is hiring former coal miners and teaching them to code. We need many more programs that take this approach throughout the coal fields in our region.

The booming clean energy industry isn’t just for former coal miners either. Memphis, Tennessee created the Memphis Clean and Green Job Training Program with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. The program trains unemployed and underemployed Memphis residents in a variety of clean energy jobs.

Former coal plants can also be great redevelopment opportunities. Google Inc. plans to build a data center in the footprint of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Widows Creek power plant, which will soon be demolished. The data center should bring 75-100 new full-time jobs to northern Alabama when it opens.

Americans are resilient. We have survived the transition away from tobacco, landlines, textiles, and much more. As the coal industry declines it’s critical for utilities to invest in renewable energy as a solution to generation needs. We need coordinated programs at every level of government, with serious community involvement, to ensure that the transition to a clean energy future is just and that we never have to choose between a strong economy and a healthy environment.

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