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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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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