Quantcast

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.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mizina / iStock / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Oats are widely regarded as one of the healthiest grains you can eat, as they're packed with many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Read More Show Less
JPMorgan Chase building in New York City. Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0

By Sharon Kelly

A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability speaking on conflict of interest demand of the People's Demands at a defining action launching the Demands at COP24. Corporate Accountability

By Patti Lynn

2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."

Read More Show Less
The head of England's Environment Agency has urged people to stop watering their lawns as a climate-induced water shortage looms. Pexels

England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jessica Corbett

A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A flock of parrots in Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. ~dgies / Flickr

By Madison Dapcevich

Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.

Read More Show Less
Fire burns in the North Santiam State Recreational Area on March 19. Oregon Department of Forestry

An early-season wildfire near Lyons, Oregon burned 60 acres and forced dozens of homes to evacuate Tuesday evening, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) said, as KTVZ reported.

The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.

Read More Show Less
Edwin Hardeman is the plaintiff in the first U.S. federal trial claiming that Roundup causes cancer. NOAH BERGER / AFP / Getty Images

A second U.S. jury has ruled that Roundup causes cancer.

The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The decision comes less than a year after a jury awarded $289 million to Bay-area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson over similar claims. The amount was later reduced to $78 million.

"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."

Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.

"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."

Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.

"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.

Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.

Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.

"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.

Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.