Whelp, that didn’t take long. Just a day after ExxonMobil hinted that it will work aggressively to push coal out of the global marketplace, the company received an important “I got your back” message from US Senator Mitch McConnell. Last Friday, the Senator dropped some hints of his own about the future of coal here in the US, and he did not paint a pretty picture.
On the other hand, Senator McConnell’s home state of Kentucky has been experiencing a sudden surge in solar activity, so it looks like energy jobs are coming back to the state, coal or no coal.
Solar On The Upswing In Coal Country
The main reason behind the decline of coal in the US is not a matter of opinion. Industry analysts agree that an ongoing glut of cheap natural gas began to drive coal out of the power-generating market years before President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan.
As for coal jobs, coal the industry has been cannibalizing its own workforce for generations, as mechanization has replaced hand labor. The advent of mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia only staved off the inevitable, while arguably putting public health and other economic sectors at risk.
Be that as it may, technological advances have also brought the cost of renewable energy closer to parity with fossil fuels, and now renewables really are in a position to push coal (and natural gas) aside.
In addition to lower cost and a host of other benefits, clean power offers companies and utilities an attractive green branding bonus that they can’t get with coal (or, for that matter, natural gas).
Regardless of whether or not the incoming Trump Administration bails on the Paris climate agreement, that green branding factor is going to continue to be a force for change.
So, for example, in September the global personal care company L’Oreal announced that it will build 5,000 rooftop solar panels at its Kentucky plant, making it the largest such solar installation in the state. Another 4,000 solar panels are going to its Arkansas plant.
That’s just for starters. L’Oreal is positioning Kentucky — a historic center of US coal production — as the centerpiece of its ambitious sustainability goals:
The 687,000 sq. ft. plant … is the company’s largest manufacturing site in the U.S. and its largest worldwide by tonnage of products produced. L’Oréal USA has been operational in Kentucky for more than 25 years and now has over 400 employees.
“With this project, our facility becomes an emblem of sustainable manufacturing” said Eric Wolff, L’Oréal’s Florence Plant Manager. “We’re proud to be leading the way for commercial renewable energies in Kentucky.”
Other new solar installations of note in Kentucky include a utility-owned 44,000-panel, 10 megawatt array that came online — and under budget — last August. That’s the largest in the state so far, but a far larger solar array is already in the works.
Other parts of the state are eyeballing former mining sites for solar arrays. Converting farmland to solar farms is also attracting more interest due to higher tax rates for industrial use, which would benefit cash-starved local governments.
There Goes Coal, Under The Bus
As a major producer of natural gas, ExxonMobil has a bottom-line interest in pushing coal out of the marketplace. That’s why it wasn’t much of a shocker last Thursday, when the company tweeted its support for putting the Paris climate agreement into force. The idea would be to continue pitching natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal.
Meanwhile, President-elect Donald Trump ran his campaign on the promise of ending the “war on coal” and putting coal miners back to work, but then again he didn’t exactly say that they’d be going back to work in actual coal mines.
Senator McConnell, who steadfastly supported Trump throughout his campaign, stretched that wiggle room a little farther in an appearance at the University of Louisville last Friday. Here’s the money quote, reported by Daniel Desrochers in the Lexington Herald-Leader:
“We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault. … Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”
Desrochers also got the interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association on the record:
“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”
Ouch! Do read the full article (here’s that link again) for more insights from coal industry insiders. The bottom line is that coal jobs are not coming back, at least not to regions like Eastern Kentucky, where coal is relatively more expensive to mine.
McConnell does not seem much in mind of deploying federal resources to create new, non-coal jobs in the region (seriously, check out Desrochers’s article).
However, he is awfully keen on creating new jobs outside of Kentucky. Our friends over at The Hill report that during his University of Louisville presentation, McConnell said he would focus on pushing through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which doesn’t go anywhere near Kentucky:
McConnell told reporters Friday that Keystone was one of the top priorities that he asked Trump to take on quickly when he comes into the White House Jan. 20, along with repealing regulations that the Kentucky Republican says constitute a “war on coal.”
McConnell won’t be much help and Trump has indicated he will bail on the Paris agreement, but pressure from ExxonMobil and other stakeholders could keep the US engaged. That means more renewable energy jobs could keeping flowing into Kentucky and other former coal states for years to come.
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Photo: Mountaintop removal coal mining in Kentucky by Doc Searls via flickr.com, creative commons license.
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