What's going on at Delta
and who's helping make it happen
Guest post by Hannah Slodounik, Delta Emerging Leader and Sustainability Coordinator, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Clean coal, new coal plants, increased coal funding, and job opportunities are all unlikely, even under the current administration. Delta Institute’s first Glass Half Full event of the year “The Future of Coal: Separating Fact from Fiction” featured industry panelists with diverse backgrounds and opinions, but the consensus was clear – coal is not here to stay.
Busted: “Coal plants are closing, yet the government is cutting the funding to help these struggling communities,” said Emily Rhodes, Communities Specialist at Delta Institute. Coal plants are often significant contributors to a community’s tax revenue and can leave a hole in a community’s economy when they close. Redeveloping a former coal plant site takes time, private investment, public resources, and community input. Rhodes cited Homan Square Powerhouse as a local Midwest example that redeveloping a coal plant is possible, and emphasized that decommissioned plants frequently offer desirable resources such as proximity to water and large workforce. However, redevelopment requires significant investment to plan and transition them to new uses.
Busted: “A lot of smoke, with no fire,” explained Barry Matchett, Director of External Affairs at NRG Energy regarding the energy policy discussion in Washington D.C. Even though the current administration is taking steps to roll back the Clean Power Plan and withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accord, the administration would still need to move forward with significant policy work and use global political capital to fully divest the country from many climate change policies and agreements. In many places, states, cities, and organizations are taking the lead to work toward emissions reductions. For example, even with the administration’s roll back of environmental policies, Jen Walling, Executive Director of the Illinois Environmental Council, and her team are continuing to push for policies that reduce emissions from all coal plants, noting that the transition away from coal will take a significant amount of time.
Busted: Coal plants that integrate emission capture technologies (commonly referred to as “clean coal”) are hard to make economically viable, especially with the low cost of natural gas. “Some people in the environmental community are now saying nuclear is the bridge fuel [between coal and renewable energy], but gas is the bridge fuel,” said Matchett. Illinois illustrates this as “the state with the most nuclear in the country.” In fact, one of the only things keeping the coal economy afloat in Illinois is assistance from strong overseas pricing, which is driving exports. While nuclear is the largest generator in Illinois, in 2016, natural gas surpassed coal as the most common source for electricity generation in the U.S.
Busted: Coal plants are being decommissioned, not built. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, there are currently 30 coal plants with planned retirement dates between now and 2025. Only one new coal plant development is moving forward in the U.S. The new 17 MW plant is being built at the University of Alaska and is the fraction of the size of existing coal plants (the average nameplate capacity of currently operating coal plant units is over 300 MW). As we saw in Myth #3, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables are making up the capacity lost by decommissioned coal plants.
Busted: Even with increased tariffs on imported solar panels, the price of renewable energy technologies continues to decline. Ann McCabe, Interim Executive Director of The Climate Registry of North America and Walling pointed to increased state incentives exemplified by Illinois and the Future Energy Jobs Act, as additional evidence of coal’s demise. Simply put by Matchett, investing in coal is spending “more money for something that isn’t economic.” Matchett touted NRG as a vocal advocate for carbon pricing, a tool that some experts claim helps reduce emissions and makes renewables even more viable.
Not a myth, there are things you can do:
The panelists closing statements provided clear actions and proved that they consider glass to be half full. Below are seven steps that you can use to transition away from coal today:
Are you interested in digging deeper into the transition away from coal? Check out Delta’s tools In Transition: Stories from Coal Plant Communities, Coal in the United States: Policy Responses to an Industry in Decline, and look for Delta’s upcoming Coal Plant Redevelopment Roadmap, which seeks to provide resources to municipal leaders and community stakeholders planning for the transition away from coal. Sign up to be the first to receive Delta’s newest tools here.