Cooling on Coal
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month rejected a proposal from energy secretary Perry to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, apparently in hopes of finding a way to bail out coal companies like Murray Energy, whose owner is a major donor to the president. Secretary Perry was also considering Energy Department payments to utilities like First Energy (which buys coal from Murray) to build up coal reserves. According to Bloomberg, this suggests that some coal companies might not survive without a federal bailout.
Coal is in decline. Despite repeated presidential claims, coal-fired electricity generation is not making a comeback. Several coal plant retirements are likely this year, according to S&P Global Marketplace Intelligence. Troubling economics have proven difficult to overcome—low wholesale power and natural gas prices being the main contributing factors, coupled with an increasingly gas-, wind- and solar-focused energy resource mix. The Texas utility Vistra Energy plans to retire three coal-fired power plants with a combined capacity of more than 4,000 Gigawatts. Florida’s 1,252-megawatt St. Johns River power plant shut down last January, mainly because of market conditions. Utilities plan to replace coal plants with nuclear, natural gas and solar resources.
These developments are in line with a Union of Concerned Scientists report published last fall detailing why coal-fired power has become increasingly uneconomic—the main reason for the U.S. electricity sector’s rapid transition away from coal. As for “beautiful, clean coal”, according to a research letter just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, health professionals in Appalachian coal country are now finding the highest levels of black lung disease ever reported.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has conducted routine radiographic chest screenings for coal miners since 1970. In the 1990s, black lung disease was “rarely identified” among participating miners. After a 2014 spike in cases, NIOSH decided to take a closer look. They found that black lung cases have skyrocketed among Appalachian coal miners. And the disease is more severe, with miners dying much younger than they had two decades ago. One clinic went from seeing five to seven severe black lung cases a year in the 1990s to 154 cases last year.
The most likely causes for this dramatic increase are that miners work longer hours exposed to deadlier silica dust as they cut into rock to extract coal from thinner, harder-to-reach seams. Readily available coal has long been mined out in Appalachia. What is available is more difficult to mine, and apparently more detrimental to human health. Miners with progressive massive fibrosis—an advanced stage of black lung disease caused by inhalation of coal and silica dust—gradually lose the ability to breathe.
Clearly the coal industry is unlikely to stage a comeback. The current administration can keep it on life support with taxpayer-funded bailouts in exchange for a continuing flow of political contributions from mine owners. But, for miners and taxpayers alike, embracing a clean, renewable energy future would be a far better deal—especially for job creation.
Electricity generation from coal sources declined by 53% between 2006 and 2016, while it increased by 33% from natural gas, and by over 5,000% from solar. Coal mining and extraction reached its employment peak in 2012 with just under 90,000 jobs. By 2016, the number dropped to 53,000. Mining and extraction employers, in all fuels, project a further decline in employment of another 12% over the next year.
Nearly 1 million Americans work full-time in the energy efficiency, solar, wind, and alternative vehicles sectors—almost five times the current employment in coal, gas, and oil combined. Including part-time workers boosts the number to nearly 3 million—14 times the current employment in the fossil fuel electric industry. Job growth trends also favor clean energy: Last year wind employment grew by 32%, the solar workforce increased by 25%, and energy efficiency employment by 7%.
If we are committed to creating good paying, healthy jobs for underemployed coal miners, what better choice than solar and wind jobs, which also pay better wages than tourism jobs do—something certain Maine politicians would do well to remember.