By Grant Smith, Environmental Working Group
The Trump administration’s latest idea to “bring back coal” is to let individual states decide how – or even whether – to cut air pollution from coal-burning power plants. The plan is meant to encourage electric utilities to invest in upgrading their dirty, aging coal plants or build new ones.
It’s a reckless scheme that would threaten the health of Americans and worsen climate change – and even the utilities aren’t buying it.
The Washington Examiner queried some of the nation’s biggest utilities and couldn’t find any who would “commit to improving their coal plants, or re-evaluate planned coal plant retirements because of the Trump administration’s new rule.” Instead, the companies plan to continue shutting down money-losing coal plants and instead relying on electricity generated by natural gas and renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
The White House could have anticipated this response. In a survey of 600 utility companies released earlier this year, Utility Dive reported:
After more than a century, the utility industry appears to finally be putting this baseload fuel (coal) out to pasture. Nearly 60% of 2018 survey participants predict a significant decrease in their usage of coal in coming years, and a further 26% a moderate decrease. Virtually no one foresaw any increase in their coal use.
This is mixed news.
On one hand, a source of power devastating to public health, clean air and water, and the climate is on its way out. On the other hand, despite utilities’ limited embrace of renewables, the big driver in coal’s demise is cheap natural gas. Natural gas plants emit far less carbon dioxide and lung-damaging soot than coal-fired power plants, but the extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing is a public health disaster.
Utilities refer to natural gas as a clean resource and a way to reduce their carbon footprint, but this is far from the truth.
The amount of methane that leaks from fracking rigs and other natural gas infrastructure is likely to be 60 percent higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency forecasts. Methane is 80 times more potent in fueling climate change than the carbon dioxide emitted by coal plants.
A growing body of research shows how fracking pollutes air and water. One study found that low birth weights in newborns are more frequent for mothers living near fracking sites. A recent study by Duke University found that from 2011 to 2016, the toxic wastewater produced by fracking has risen by a factor of 14.
The costs of natural gas plants are also frequently higher than a mix of energy efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage.
In a recent study, the Rocky Mountain Institute sounded the alarm about the rush to gas. It found that over $110 billion in natural gas plants could become money-losers because of the cleaner, cheaper alternatives, such as wind and solar and battery storage, that are projected to continue to get cheaper. The study found that, “across a wide range of case studies, regionally specific clean energy portfolios already outcompete proposed gas-fired generators, and/or threaten to erode their revenue within the next 10 years.”
In their rush to replace coal with natural gas, electric utilities are simply substituting one dirty technology for another. Truly clean and affordable alternatives are available that provide the same level of reliable electric service.