The King is Dead

Coal wants to survive. Long crowned as the cheapest source of electricity, coal is reluctant to give up its throne. But despite heavy lobbying, advertising, and technological prayers, coal knows its days are numbered.

Although its reign is far from over, coal’s dominance is on the decline. In 2011, coal fueled about 42% of the electricity generated in the United States. Ten years ago, coal accounted for over 50% of electricity generation--nearly a 10% reduction. Coal has accounted for less and less energy production over the years.

Coal knows its window is narrowing. A new report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) predicts that renewables can fill 80% of US electricity demand by 2050. As we get more and more electricity from clean, renewable sources, we will need dirty fuels less and less.

As the costs of wind power and natural gas decrease, coal desperately wants to prolong its dominance. In 2008 the coal lobby spent nearly $10 million to convince others that coal had a future. In 2012, total lobbying expenditures were just a fraction: only $380 thousand.

Part of that decrease is because people are wising up. Yet they know that the coal industry employs thousands of people: miners, geologists, and management. The rail industry relies on coal mines to send their coke towards power plants. Coal is a big reason that electricity rates have been kept low in this country. Abandoning coal altogether would put many out of work.

But coal is running out of options. As externalities are factored in, the price of electricity from coal is expected to rise. Carbon capture and sequestration” was supposed to be the fossil fuel’s saving grace. Carbon capture means that, instead of polluting exhaust escaping from power plant smokestacks, the harmful gas would be collected and stored. Storing captured emissions underground would raise the cost of coal electricity, but still allow it to compete with other generation sources.

Unfortunately for Big Coke, a new study has found that carbon capture is too risky, and earthquake prone. Carbon capture was supposed to be a saving grace for the industry. But these findings mean that coal will have less and less of a future with Americans.

As coal plants are retired, renewable energy options can fill the void. Wind development planned in conjunction with transmission improvements can radically alter the midwestern energy landscape. And with enough wind farms, the cost of electricity can actually be cheaper than coal.

Supporters of coal have a choice to make: they can stick with what they know, or adapt to changing conditions. There are no easy solutions, but the coal unions can begin training their members to be productive workers in the renewable energy industry. Hard-working Americans deserve good jobs, and a well-implemented wind industry can generate billions of dollars in economic development nationwide.

Turbines need to be built and installed. Transmission wires need to be manufactured and strung. Jobs will be lost, but jobs will be created. Time’s change.

Supporters of coal can ignore the future and ply their rocks, or face reality. Coal is being replaced by other generation sources. This is an unprecedented shift in US energy production, and an opportunity for thousands of workers to learn a new trade.

Coal is desperate to live. But everything comes to an end, and America is entering a clean energy future. Coal may have still have a place at the table, but no longer at the head. A new king will be crowned.


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You can reach Paul Mansoor via telephone (402-687-2103 x 1028), or email (paulm@cfra.org), and you can follow him on Twitter @paul_at_cfra

 

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