The outlook for coal continued to dim in 2011 as dozens of proposed new coal-fired plants were taken off the drawing board and utilities announced over more than 25,000 megawatts of coal plant retirements this year—and the nation saw record investments in wind and solar. Plant by plant, community by community, citizens joined together this year to show that they aren’t waiting for Washington to move their local communities towards clean sources of energy like wind and solar.
What's more, a game-changing partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies this year made clear that coal power is on the way out—the $50 million donation will help the Sierra Club move the nation beyond coal, with the goal of retiring a third of the nation's aging coal plants by 2020.
"Coal is a dirty and outdated fuel that is making our kids sick, causing asthma attacks and other health problems," said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "2011 was a landmark year where coal's prospects were eclipsed by clean energy—this is the year that investors realized that coal is a losing bet."
2011 By the Numbers
- 0—New coal plants broke ground
- 161—Total number of new coal plants abandoned or defeated since 2002 (12 in 2011)
- 89—Total number of coal plant retired or announced to retire since 2010 (48 in 2011)
- 19 colleges announced retirements of their campus coal plants
- 11 percent of existing coal-fired generation now announced to retire
- 1 veto of the largest mountaintop removal coal mining permit ever proposed
- 1,046 megawatts of solar power installed (the largest in history) and 3,360 megawatts of wind energy brought online during first three quarters of 2011
- 20 percent—Percentage of electricity that Iowa is now getting from wind power
- $50,000,000 donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies to move beyond coal
"We are clearly witnessing the end of our dependency on coal and because of our successful efforts we are helping to move our nation toward a cleaner energy future that benefits both the public health and the public good," said Michael Bloomberg.
Nationwide, the price of coal is going up, while wind and solar prices are coming down—making new coal plants a poor investment. Citizen opposition, rising costs of coal and increased accountability have stopped 161 proposed coal plants over the past decade. And in the past two years, an unprecedented number of utilities opted to close outdated existing coal plants and pave the way for clean energy innovation.
In Alexandria, Va., a coal plant on the banks of the Potomac river—one that has been polluting the nation's capital for six decades—announced that it would phase out. In San Antonio, community groups heralded the mayor's announcement that the city would replace its coal plant with a massive solar power installation. In Centralia, Washington, a landmark agreement brought together workers and concerned citizens to retire the coal plant and make major new community investments in clean energy. And in the Southeast, an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority will phase out 18 units at coal-fired power plants and will invest $350 million in clean air projects.
The end of 2011 also heralded a major victory, as Sierra Club and its allies applauded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) announcement of new mercury protections, which will require coal plants to install modern pollution control technology. Most of the country's coal plants were built before 1980, and many lack modern pollution controls. As much-needed new guidelines go into effect to protect people from toxic mercury, soot and smog spewing from these outdated coal plants, utilities will need to decide whether they will invest in updating aging plants, or switch to more effective sources of clean power like wind and solar. With wind prices now as low as 3 cents per kilowatt hour in Texas—a third of the price of new coal plants—smart business decisions will increasingly point towards wind power.
The call for clean energy has been especially strong on the more than 40 campuses nationwide where students are organizing to move beyond coal. Just this year Penn State University, Oberlin College, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio University, Miami University of Ohio, Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, Southeast Missouri State University, Clemson University, University of Minnesota, and most recently St. John’s University (MN) have all made commitments to phase out coal plants on their campuses. One third of all of the campus-based coal plants in the country are now on their way to retirement.
Students at Miami University won their campaign in just a single semester with actions including collecting more than 2,000 petitions and hosting an underwear flash mob while students at Ohio University celebrated victory in one of the longest-running and toughest Campuses Beyond Coal campaigns in the heart of coal country.
"Citizens across this country who are frustrated at the lack of leadership in Congress on critical issues of clean air, new jobs and combating global warming are taking action and seeing real results in their local communities, plant by plant, state by state," said Hitt. "The sooner we make the transition off of coal the sooner we can all breathe a little easier."
The Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign is a nationwide campaign working to stop the construction of new coal plants, to phase out existing coal plants and replace them with clean energy like wind and solar, and to keep U.S. coal reserves underground and out of world markets. Click here to learn more.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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