Major Milestone: More than 100,000 MW Worth of Coal-Fired Power Plants Retired
Dynegy, Inc., a Houston, Texas-based electric utility, announced Tuesday that it will phase out the use of coal at units one and three at the Baldwin Power Station in Baldwin, Illinois and unit two at the Newton Power Station in Newton, Illinois, marking the announced retirement of more than 100,000 megawatts (MW) worth of coal-fired power plants in the U.S. in 2010. This will prevent 100,792 asthma attacks, 9,420 heart attacks and 6,097 premature deaths annually as America continues to shift to a clean energy economy.
Dynegy’s announcement, which retires 1,877 MW of coal capacity, is another example of the quickening speed which the U.S. is moving away from coal and investing in clean energy. Just this week, it was announced that the nation had more than one million solar installations in operation. Since 2008, the Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that U.S. solar installations have grown seventeen-fold, from 1,200 MW to an estimated 27,000 MW today—enough electricity to power 5.4 million homes. DOE has also estimated that U.S. wind energy capacity has increased nearly 16-fold between 2000 and 2010 and is projecting U.S. wind power generation to double in the next five years and power 100 million homes by 2050.
Yesterday's coal retirement milestone comes as a result of unrelenting advocacy by the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and more than 100 allied organizations to phase out coal and natural gas use in the electric sector over the the next fifteen years—and replace it with clean energy. Coal retirements thus far have already enabled the U.S. to lead the industrialized world in cutting carbon pollution,and have put the U.S. on firm footing to meet its 2020 and new 2025 climate commitments it made in Paris at the end of last year.
“All over the country, people who are sick and tired of having our health and our future threatened by dirty coal have stood up for their health and the future of their communities and won. Because of these victories, our air is cleaner, our families are safer and our clean energy economy is growing,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said. “The retirement of Illinois’ Baldwin and Newton coal units are not only a great step forward for public health in the Prairie State, it’s a clear sign that we are winning—coal plant by plant—in the effort to transition our communities away from dirty coal electricity. But we’re not done—we’re mobilizing nationwide because the fight for a fair and just transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is far from done.”
Yesterday’s announced retirement highlights the great progress of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign and its allies to phase out coal plants at a rate that has averaged one coal plant announced to retire every ten days since 2010. To date, this coalition has helped announce the retirement of 101,673 MW of coal electricity, which includes 232 coal plants and 662 coal units across the country. As coal plants are retiring at record rates nationwide, states are also making major investments in wind and solar power, fueling the transition to local clean energy economies. In Illinois, for example, there has been a massive build out of clean energy over the past decade, with more than 113,000 workers currently employed in Illinois’ clean energy industry today.
“Dynegy’s decision to phase out units at these Illinois coal-fired power plants is a signal of the profound shift that’s happening right now in America's energy landscape from coal to clean energy,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. “As we transition to a clean energy economy, it is essential that we invest in the livelihoods of workers and communities historically dependent on coal and the Sierra Club is committed to working in solidarity to maximize opportunities for the skilled workforce at the plants impacted by Dynegy’s announcement.”
The three coal units announced to retire late yesterday at the Baldwin and Newton power plants, which total 1,877 MW of electricity, emitted nearly 13 million tons of CO2 in 2009—and enough pollution to cause 128 heart attacks, 1,404 asthma attacks and cost local residents nearly $39 million in healthcare bills annually according to plant-level 2010 estimates by Clean Air Task Force.
In 2010, the pollution from the 100,000 MW of coal capacity now retired or proposed for retirement nationwide caused 9,420 heart attacks, 100,792 asthma attacks and 6,097 deaths each year. The plants emitted more than 420 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2009.
"Retiring enough coal to displace the pollution from 89 million cars is more than a major campaign milestone; it is an astonishing victory for public health and climate action," said Antha Williams, environmental program lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has provided $80 million to the Beyond Coal campaign. "In Illinois and across the country, community after community has realized that transitioning to cleaner sources of energy saves consumers money and creates new jobs. No matter where you live, everyone has a right to breathe clean air, which is why the Beyond Coal campaign is continuing to work in communities across the country to transition to a clean energy economy that protects our health and helps tackle the climate crisis."
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s temporary hold on the Clean Power Plan, the 100,000 MW milestone not only shows that the coal industry will continue to decline despite the Court’s pause, but it also highlights the industry’s responsibility to acknowledge and act on the world’s changing energy landscape. As explained in an open letter released by Sierra Club to coal industry executives and energy analysts in late April, coal companies must accurately forecast their downward decline to their investors moving forward—pushing back against recent suggestions by industry leaders that coal was poised for a rebound after Peabody Energy’s bankruptcy.
Equally important, coal companies have the additional responsibility of keeping the promises they’ve made to the workers and communities that have contributed heavily to the industry. As they decline, coal companies must make sure that they completely fund the contractual worker pension and healthcare benefits, as well as abandoned mine cleanup efforts.
As the transition away from coal and toward clean energy continues, the Sierra Club is committed to helping protect the livelihoods of workers and communities traditionally reliant on coal. The organization is working to advance these efforts through the Beyond Coal campaign, its Labor Program and federal policy advocacy—which focus on supporting legislation, like President Obama’s Power+ Plan, which help transition coal communities to new opportunities and clean up the toxic legacy of abandoned coal mines.
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As the days shorten and temperatures drop in the northern hemisphere, leaves begin to turn. We can enjoy glorious autumnal colors while the leaves are still on the trees and, later, kicking through a red, brown and gold carpet when out walking.
Reaching the Limit<p>The researchers, led by Deborah Zani at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, studied the degree to which the timing of color changes in autumn tree leaves was determined by the growth of the plant in the preceding spring and summer.</p><p>Temperature and day length were traditionally accepted as the main determinants of when leaves changed color and fell, leading <a href="http://max2.ese.u-psud.fr/publications/Delpierre_2009_AFM.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">some scientists</a> to assume that warming temperatures would delay this process until later in the season. Studying deciduous European tree species, including horse chestnut, silver birch and English oak, the authors of the new study recorded how much carbon each tree absorbed per season and how that ultimately affected when the leaves fell.</p><p>Using data from the <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Barbara_Templ/publication/323254030_Pan_European_Phenological_database_PEP725_a_single_point_of_access_for_European_data/links/5a8bf0dba6fdcc6b1a442ef2/Pan-European-Phenological-database-PEP725-a-single-point-of-access-for-European-data.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Pan European Phenology Project</a>, which has tracked some trees for as long as 65 years, the researchers found in their long-term observational study that as the rate of photosynthesis increased, leaves changed color and fell earlier in the year. For every 10% increase in photosynthetic activity over the spring and summer growing season, trees shed their leaves, on average, eight days earlier.</p><p>Climate-controlled experiments on five-year-old European beech and Japanese meadowsweet trees suggest what could be behind this unexpected result. In these trials, the trees were exposed to full sun, half shade or full shade. The results show that there is a limit to the amount of photosynthesis that a tree can carry out over a growing season. Think of it like filling a bucket with water. It can be done slowly or quickly, but once the bucket is full, there is nowhere for any more water to go.</p>
Earlier Autumn Colors<p>In a world with increasing levels of <a href="https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/carbon-dioxide-levels-continue-record-levels-despite-covid-19-lockdown#:%7E:text=The%20annual%20globally%20averaged%20level,per%20million%20benchmark%20in%202015." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon in the atmosphere</a>, these new findings imply that warmer weather and longer growing seasons will not allow temperate deciduous trees to take up more carbon dioxide. The study's predictive model suggests that by 2100, when tree growing seasons are expected to be between 22 and 34 days longer, leaves will fall from trees between three and six days earlier than they do now.</p><p>This has significant implications for climate change modeling. If we accept that the amount of carbon taken up by deciduous trees in temperature countries like the UK will remain the same each year regardless of the growing season, carbon dioxide levels will rise more quickly than was previously expected. The only way to change this will be to increase the capacity of trees to absorb carbon.</p><p>Plants that aren't limited by the amount of nitrogen available may be able to grow for longer in the warming climate. These are the trees which can take nitrogen from the air, such as <a href="https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/alder/" target="_blank">alder</a>. But these species will still lose their leaves at roughly the same time as always, thanks to less daylight and colder temperatures.</p><p>But on the upside, with the prospect of some trees losing their leaves earlier and others losing them at the time they do now, there might be the prospect of prolonged autumnal colors – and more time for us to kick through the leaves.</p>
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Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
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A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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