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Wind and Solar Are the Final Nails in Coal’s Coffin

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Wind and Solar Are the Final Nails in Coal’s Coffin
Wind farms dominate the landscape in West Texas. Robert Coy / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

During the 2016 campaign and in various postelection rallies, President Trump promised to save America's flagging coal industry and put the nation's coal miners "back to work." While Trump continues to labor under the delusion that easing emissions standards will somehow resuscitate the coal industry, his administration's own numbers tell a different story. In fact, more U.S. coal plants have been deactivated in the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency than were taken offline during President Obama's entire first term. Domestic coal use in 2018 was also the lowest it's been since Jimmy Carter was in office.


Cheap natural gas is one reason for coal's demise, but the more interesting—and much more important—part of the story is the role that renewables, specifically wind and solar, are playing in the protracted fade-out of our dirtiest fuel. As for job creation, the 2018 U.S. Energy and Employment Report found that there are three times as many Americans now working in clean energy jobs as there are in the fossil fuel industry. For quite some time, conventional wisdom has held that renewables pose a serious threat to the future of coal. Now it seems clear the future has arrived.

Just ask the people in my home state of Texas, of all places. In a just-published report, scientists at Rice University in Houston conclude that the state could quit coal cold-turkey today and still have energy to spare—all thanks to recent advances in renewables. As one of the coauthors told the Houston Chronicle, "There is nowhere else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is. Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack."

The authors acknowledge that Texas is uniquely equipped to be in this enviable position. Ample winds along its Gulf Coast and in its western plains have helped make Texas the country's largest producer of wind energy. And its famed size and sunshine have made it one of the fastest-growing states in terms of solar capacity, which industry analysts predict will reach 3,000 megawatts next year—up from just 15 megawatts in 2010.


Where does all of this progress leave coal? Out in the cold. The state's coal-fired power plants are shutting down or being seasonally mothballed at rates never witnessed before. And according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which provides electric power to more than 23 million Texans, future energy projects in the state are trending—mightily—in favor of wind and solar. One recent chart released by the consortium predicts that these two renewables will generate 86 percent of the megawattage of those future projects. How much coal is in that queue? Precisely 0 percent.

Texas isn't jumping on the renewables bandwagon out of some official commitment to curb climate change, or because it's suddenly turned its back on the fossil fuel industry that helped make it an international economic powerhouse. Texas is joining the club for the same reason that so many other states are joining: It makes sound economic sense. As Dan Cohan, one of the Rice study's coauthors, puts it, "It's the cheapest way to do things, whether or not you care about the environment." The new year brought with it a Wall Street Journal story that pithily sums up where things are headed nationally. Under the headline Utilities Speed Up Closure of Coal-Fired Power Plants, the article traces the phenomenon in large part to the "more economic alternatives" now provided by wind and solar.

As environmentalists, we'd love for governments, utilities and energy companies to put climate and air quality at the very top of their priority lists. Happily, more and more are doing just that. But as pragmatists, we should acknowledge that money, in the form of savings and/or profits, is going to be the determining factor in the growth of renewables. The good news is that climate advocacy and renewable technology have combined in such a way as to take the still-young clean energy sector to the next level. As it gets bigger, its products and its infrastructure will get cheaper. And as they get cheaper, dirty coal will look more and more like a loser—even to those who were perfectly fine with it before.

Here's the thing: As disingenuous as President Trump has shown himself to be, I do believe he's sincere in his desire to save the coal industry, even if it's just to shore up votes in Appalachian swing states and appease the corporate fat cats to whom he's indebted.

The only problem? He can't do it. It's too late.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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