Why Coal Plants are Going Out of Business

Coal plants are struggling to keep up with the fast paced changes in the energy sector, despite federal efforts to prop them up.

Coal Doesn’t Make Economic Sense

  • It’s expensive to build and run coal fired plants
    • “In many areas, it is not cost-effective to building a coal plant: Increasingly, building a new solar or wind farm is cheaper than just operating an existing coal plant.”
    • The average coal fired plant in America is 43 years old, meaning they require lots of maintenance and run less efficiently.
  • It’s important to acknowledge the decline, and to plan how we want our power grid and economy to develop.
    • A town in Montana had proposed to purchase a struggling coal plant a few years back, fearing what it going under might do to the economy.

Can We Use Decommissioned Plants?

  • Coal plants suddenly shutting down could cost jobs, and burning coal causes contamination at the old sites.
    • There have been some creative solutions – to avoid losing around 1,600 jobs, Acme Equities LLC purchased an old coal plant in New Mexico that was about to shut down for $1.
      • They plan to keep the plant running, but install carbon capture technology and sell off the CO2 as an additional revenue stream.
    • A coal plant in Germany was faced with a similar issue.
      • They’re investigating turning the old plant into molten salt storage unit – basically a huge battery that would preserve the coal plant jobs and also add storage capacity for renewable energy.

What’s Taking Coal’s Place?

  • There are several drivers of coal’s decline. Although GDP is up, energy usage has remained fairly flat due to efficiency increases.

Cheap natural gas and explosive additions to our solar and wind capacity are a more economically feasible way to meet our current energy demands.

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Fighting Climate Change for Kids’ Sake

We’ve Left it up to the Kids

Children and teenagers have gone on strike this past Friday to protest inaction on climate change. Around the world, young protestors like Greta Thunberg feel that we’ve reached a tipping point and they must take action into their own hands, even though they are not yet out of grade-school.

What they’ve had to say is powerful. Greta’s speech included moving lines like this:

  • “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes…Because the adult generations have used up all our carbon budget.

What’s the Impact of Inaction?

The IPCC’s climate report gives us ten years to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and it’s had a big impact on these Generation Z activists, who are mostly aged in their mid teens. In ten years’ time, they’ll be in their mid twenties and dealing with the repercussions of older generations’ inaction.

These bleak prospects have a real impact, even beyond the climate. The United States has an aging population, and young people have cited climate change as a concern for having children. Business Insider conducted a poll which found

  • Nearly 38% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that climate change should be a factor in a couple’s decision about whether to have children. And 34% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 44 agreed.

What Can We Do?

By powering most of the world on electricity that comes from wind and solar and other renewable, carbon-free sources and offsetting things like plane travel that have to use fossil fuel with higher prices and carbon capture, we can put a stop to the worst of climate change.  “It’s 2050 And This Is How We Stopped Climate Change” outlined a clear vision of the future:

  • “This is the foundation of a zero-carbon world: Electricity that comes from clean sources, mainly the sun and the wind, cheap and increasingly abundant. Today, it powers this house; tomorrow, it could drive the world.”

The good news is that we still have a few years to turn things around, and we have the solutions we need to do it – all that’s missing is action.

  • “In order to have impact, timely impact, I figured that I need to leave research and focus on impactful things that I want to do. And fast,” she says.

As consumers and citizens, we can also have a big impact. Voting, both at the polls and with our dollars, combined with individual choices on things like transportation, are powerful ways to combat climate change. One easy switch to make is to support the transition to clean energy through community solar, which is becoming increasingly available in many states.

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The Green New Deal: Can We Both Solve Climate Change and Build the Economy?

Last week Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released details on the ambitious, if potentially divisive, Green New Deal. Whether you agree with it or not, it is catapulting climate change back into the national political conversation.  

What is “The Green New Deal?”

  • The Green New Deal is a plan to address some the biggest issues facing the US: climate change, social justice, and economic inequality. It’s styled after the New Deal of the great depression era, which aimed to fix an economic crisis with public works projects.
    • The resolution aims to offset enough carbon to meet the deadline set by the IPCC recently to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
    • It calls for heavy investment in clean technology and energy efficiency projects.
    • These efforts would focus on areas of the country that previously relied on fossil fuels, as well as rural and poor areas that have historically suffered from pollution.

What Makes it Controversial?

  • Opponents to the plan argue that it’s too expensive and ambitious.
  • There has also been pushback on the resolution’s focus on a social safety net, including union protections, affordable housing, and universal health care.
  • Defenders of the resolution argue that previous American achievements such as going to the moon were also ambitious and thought to be impossible, but they started with a goal and a timeline.
  • Whether you agree with the scope and goals of the Green New Deal or not, at least it has brought the topic of climate change back into public discussion.

Can we Strengthen the Economy by Fighting Climate Change?

  • Skeptics have long argued that transitioning to “greener” technologies would be prohibitively expensive and harm the economy.
  • But in practice, states investing in clean energy have seen an economic boost.
  • There are practical success stories of clean energy addressing pollution and climate change as well as social justice and economic issues.
    • For example, community solar delivers jobs, offsets pollution, and brings financial saving to the communities where the solar farms are installed.
    • Community solar and programs like it are more accessible to people who are not in an economic position to buy or install clean energy individually.

The Green New Deal may be criticized as divisive and ambitious, but the idea that we can boost the economy, address inequality, and fight climate change may not be so far fetched.

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The Push For 100% Renewables

There’s new blood in the state and federal legislatures, and climate change is at the top of their agenda. Here in MA, fourteen of the twenty four newly sworn in state representatives support aggressive action on climate change. At the federal level, we’ve seen ambitious new proposals and a new committee to address climate change as a top priority.

Massachusetts Fights Climate Change

  • Over half of the incoming state representatives have formed a bipartisan group they’re calling GreenTeamMA
  • The Green Team supports 100% renewable energy sources in Massachusetts by 2050
    • This will be achieved with measures such as carbon pricing and driving up demand for energy sources such as wind and solar
  • They are focussing on a bottom up approach with grassroots action by voters and consumers who are concerned about public health and climate change

The Federal\Climate Crisis Committee

  • The midterm elections saw an infusion of progressive new representatives and a flip to a House controlled by Democrats
  • New members have proposed a “Green New Deal,” an aggressive plan which would combine action on climate change and economic inequality while creating job growth
  • Nancy Pelosi has put together a Climate Change Committee, which has a narrower scope but still emphasizes the importance of preparing for and combating climate change

A key component of all of these plans is encouraging consumers to choose greener options. Legislation is important to level the playing field for clean energy, but there are impactful choices we can make right now to fight climate change, especially here in Massachusetts.

Be Part of the Solution

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The True Cost of Fossil Fuels

Skeptics of clean energy often cite high costs and “the need for subsidies” as a reason we shouldn’t or can’t afford to transition away from fossil fuels. But dirty energy has many costs attached to it which are not always readily apparent. Fossil fuel prices can be volatile, and we don’t always use domestically sourced products. Aside from the actual cost to consumers, the fossil fuel industry also receives subsidies, and we pay indirectly for using polluting energy sources in healthcare and pollution cleanup costs. It’s well past time to reframe the conversation around energy costs, and to even the playing field for cleaner energy sources.

While it’s true that most renewable energy sources can have high startup costs, once they’re running they’re inexpensive to keep up – after all, you don’t have to pay for wind or sunshine. In comparison, using fossil fuels for energy means we have to constantly buy oil, gas, and coal at the market rate. And this money doesn’t always stay in the US economy: “In 2007, America spent more than $360 billion importing fossil fuels, with the vast majority of that money spent on crude oil. That money is a direct transfer of wealth from American consumers to oil companies and foreign governments.” Even when we are buying within the country, volatile fuel prices can negatively impact consumers.  In comparison, prices for electricity generated from renewable sources has been shown to be more predictable.  In 2016, we spent $5.6 billion on renewable energy incentives, most of which went to biofuels.  Studies attempting to put a number on subsidies supporting fossil fuels, not including subsidies for things like fuel assistance programs, pegged them at around $20 billion dollars a year including the federal and state levels. The US has been slow to get rid of these subsidies and tax breaks compared to other developed countries, and that’s no coincidence. “In the 2015-2016 election cycle, oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying and received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years.” We are already spending a lot to prop up fossil fuels, but it’s taken for granted and doesn’t get much coverage, while any changes to incentives for clean energy are often hotly debated.

While the concrete costs to buy and subsidize fossil fuels are important to look at, arguably more important are the added costs of things like health care for asthma and cancer, cleaning up pollution, and fallout from a changing climate. These are difficult to put a price on, but we do know some of the costs. For example, the BP Deepwater oil spill costed tax payers fifteen point three billion dollars. There has also been impact on agriculture: “A 2007 study by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University found that global production of three of the six largest global crops experienced significant losses due to global warming between 1981 and 2002. The study concluded that global wheat growers, for example, lost $2.6 billion and global corn growers lost $1.2 billion in 2002 alone.” Projections are that these costs will sky rocket if climate change is not mitigated.

The price we pay for healthcare on pollution-related illness is difficult to pinpoint, but we do have some studies that have attempted to put a number on it. Sarah Rizk* and Ben Machol of the Clean Energy and Climate Change Office, U.S. EPA Region 9, in San Francisco published a peer reviewed article attempting to put a concrete price per kilowatt hour that we pay in healthcare. They found costs of “…19 to 45 cents per kilowatt-hour for coal, 8 to 19 cents per kilowatt-hour for oil, and 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for natural gas. “For coal and oil,” Rizk and Machol write, “these costs are larger than the typical retail price of electricity, demonstrating the magnitude of the externality.” This cost isn’t distributed evenly, either – places that are the site of extraction and energy generation pay a higher price in their health.

Clean energy is often dismissed as being too expensive, but really the cost of energy from fossil fuel is artificially low and much of what we pay is hidden or part of the status quo. When you really dig into the numbers, it’s clear that the playing field is uneven. There are many reasons to transition to clean energy, and now we can add the comparative cost of it to the list.

Find out how you can be part of the solution.

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Midterms and the Future of Clean Energy

In light of the recent midterm elections, it seems like a good time to look at what makes good energy policy and what we might expect as a result of voter choices going forward. Policy plays an important role in the success of clean energy. As more states set targets for a future powered by renewables, there’s some trial and error in how to integrate new types of shared power to the existing grid, as well as how to support their growth and ensure ratepayers see the benefit of cleaner, less expensive energy. Community solar, when it’s supported by a state’s policies, is a very accessible and relatively inexpensive solution to these challenges.

Twenty nine states have a mandatory amount of clean energy utilities have to use, called a “Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)” while eight more have a voluntary clean energy target. These regulations have different ambition levels and methods of reaching their goals. Of these, only nineteen states have a shared renewables program.  Shared renewables are those, like community solar, which allow everyone to participate in the benefits of clean power. Shared renewables programs allow new power sources like community solar to scale up. To compare how different states stacked up, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) made a scorecard for states with established community solar programs. They evaluation criteria included such things as if the program is accessible to underserved and low income communities, if all residents are eligible to use the program, if it promotes subscription portability and transferability (being able to “take it with you” or give it to the next resident if you move) and how much benefit residents can get from joining a solar farm.

Massachusetts has one of the strongest programs in place to allow community solar to grow. It allows offset of both distribution and supply charges, targets benefits to low and moderate income customers, and has recently changed its program to remove barriers between utility load zones. This makes farms more accessible and beneficial to more residents, and it makes subscriptions much more portable.

At the polls this week, there was more good news for the future of clean energy. With a shift in congress, Democratic leadership has promised to “resurrect the defunct select committee on climate change.” Nevada also voted for a measure to use 50% renewable energy by 2030, and has seen increasing investment in clean energy recently.

Overall, states, rather than the federal government, continue to lead the charge against climate change. Experimenting with different programs to find the best practices paves the way for other states to follow suit. And as states with strong renewable energy programs reap rewards such as economic growth, financial savings, and environmental benefits, hopefully more policymakers and voters will come around.

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