This entry is the first of a two-part follow up to the blog Long wrote last fall. This first entry focuses on the national story, the next entry will focus on coal in the west.
Across the U.S., economics are increasingly favoring investment in renewable energy at the expense of dirty coal energy. As the price of solar dips below coal and even natural gas in some instances, the domestic demand for coal wanes and a growing number of companies are eager to get out of their investments in aging coal plants that cost more than they’re worth to upgrade and, in a growing number of instances, just to keep running.
As the nation’s coal power plants age, they become more expensive to maintain. The costs associated with making long-term investments in an aging coal plant, including replacing breaking parts and upgrades like scrubbers and other pollution controls, often exceeds the economic viability of coal in the long-term.
Meanwhile, the natural gas prices remain low, ample wind and solar energy provides cost-effective alternatives, and energy efficiency, always the lowest-cost resource, reduces demand. Further public health protections and the first federal standards limiting carbon pollution from power plants—a key driver of climate change—are also on the horizon, all making dirty coal a shaky investment proposition.
Electricity Customers and Tax Payers Share Financial Risk of Coal Investment
Electricity customers bear the burden of long-term gambles made by utilities that coal will remain a viable energy investment. When deciding whether it makes economic sense to upgrade coal plants or retire them, utility regulatory boards are weighing utilities’ bids to pass these growing costs on to customers.
Recent examples of failing coal plant economics include:
- In Illinois, coal plant owner Ameren Corp. recently had to pay a company, Dynergy, to take five coal plants off its hands—they couldn’t give away these plants for free. And there’s no guarantee Dynergy plans to invest to keep the coal plants up and running either. They’ve already announced plans to shut at least one of the units.
- In Michigan, when a coal plant when on the auction blocks, no bidders offered to purchase the Upper Peninsula coal plant.
- Recently, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission told Puget Sound Energy it needed to reconsider its bid to continue investing in a Montana coal plant rather than decommissioning it, citing the financial risk involved as natural gas prices continue to plummet. The utility board pointed out that the likelihood of new emissions standards for coal plants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may also reduce the cost effectiveness of doubling down on the Colstrip plant in Montana.
- In Oregon, PacifiCorp is facing a similar questioning from the utility board about whether ratepayers should be on the hook to finance for its plan to invest billions to upgrade its fleet of coal plants.
Even though companies are paying to have others take over their coal plant portfolios and utility boards are examining what costs should be borne by electricity customers, the public may still be on the hook for long-term investments in the fossil fuel. As a report by Chicago Business Travel Association made clear, the coal industry actually cost Illinois taxpayers $19.8 million in 2011 when revenues, subsidies and the expenses of regulation were netted out. And that cost doesn’t include the environmental and public health costs from related air and water pollution and climate change that are borne by the public.
Coal’s Shrinking Market Share as Clean Energy Becomes More Economical
Internationally, financial support for new coal-fired plants is quickly fading. Last June, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank –lending organizations that had formerly invested billions of dollars into coal plants around the world—pulled out of financing overseas coal plants except in special circumstances.
Coal’s share of America’s energy market is also way down from just a few years ago. Investors already expected another bleak year for the U.S. coal industry—but 2014 may be the record-setting worst year for coal producers, according to a new report by ICF International.
Looking ahead, nearly a quarter of the nation’s coal fleet could be retired by end of the decade. Of 536 coal-fired plants in U.S., 84 have already announced retirement and Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that 146 units more may retire by 2020. Coal’s contribution to the U.S. energy supply also is falling. Coal accounted for 39 percent of total U.S. electricity generation last year, down from about 50 percent from 2003-2008 and a rebound from a record low 37 percent in 2012.
The natural gas boom has certainly played a big role in coal’s shrinking market share, but the lower cost of clean energy is also a growing trend. In fact, solar energy is making headlines for its record-low prices, including in Texas. Austin Energy (a city-owned utility) is about to sign a 25-year power purchase agreement with Sun Edison for 150 megawatts of solar power at “just below” 5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). In comparison, the municipal utility estimates that natural gas would cost 7 cents per kWh and coal would cost 10 cents per kWh—meaning solar is the most affordable source of energy available for the utility, in addition to being the cleanest option. And the utility can lock in that price for 25 years through this contract, a winning proposition given the volatility predicted on the horizon for the other energy options.
As coal plants become more financially untenable and renewable energy continues to become more economical, long-term investments in clean energy is quickly becoming the smart economic choice for investors, electricity customers, and the planet.
This post was co-authored by Meredith Connolly, NRDC Energy Law & Policy Fellow. The post originally appeared on the Natural Resources Defense Council's Switchboard blog.
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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