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Why coal jobs are never coming back: in the face of an existential threat from climate change, global corporate titans are juicing demand for clean power.

Clean Power

Clean Power Plan Or Not, Coal Caught In Corporate Death Squeeze (CleanTechnica Interview)

Why coal jobs are never coming back: in the face of an existential threat from climate change, global corporate titans are juicing demand for clean power.

Former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan gets a lot of heat for killing US coal jobs, but the funny thing is, it never went into effect. And yet, US coal power plants keep closing, and plans for new ones languish on the shelves. That’s too bad for the coal miners who expected current President* Donald J. Trump to deliver on his promise of bringing coal jobs back, and the news is about to get much, much worse.

In one of the latest developments, top players in the global economy have signed on to something called the Step-Up Declaration. The aim is to bring financial firepower to bear on reversing — not just halting — global carbon emissions. The ultimate goal is 100% decarbonization.

That’s perfect timing, considering that the latest IPCC report on climate change says the entire Earth is going to have an existential meltdown if we don’t all get on board with decarbonization, and fast.

The Ghost Of The Clean Power Plan

For those of you new to the topic, the Clean Power Plan was supposed to prod US utilities into dropping their reliance on coal for generating electricity.

The plan set new pollution standards that would have made it much more expensive to run coal power plants. Coal would lose its status as a super cheap way to generate electricity, and that would create a powerful bottom line motive for investing in alternatives.

The US Environmental Protection Agency was tasked with formulating rules to set the Clean Power Plan in motion. However, the EPA never got past the proposal stage. Various energy stakeholders challenged the Clean Power Plan in court almost immediately after it was announced in 2015. It has been sitting there in legal limbo ever since.

Nevertheless, like a hungry ghost the Clean Power Plan continues to haunt the conversation about coal.

The Trump administration has made a big deal about restoring US coal jobs by getting rid of the Clean Power Plan, but that doesn’t make much sense since it never went into effect.

To be clear, the mere threat of new regulations did help motivate utilities to take a long look at their aging fleets of coal power plants. However, regulations are not the only element in play. Lifespan considerations are also an important factor.

Like any major nuts-and-bolts infrastructure, old power plants of any sort have to be refurbished periodically. In the past that would have simply involved refurbishing or upgrading the old coal equipment.

The US shale drilling boom handed a new alternative to power plant stakeholders: cheap natural gas.

Energy stakeholders — including the ones invested in natural gas — have also pointed out that conventional coal power plants are simply not designed to handle the demands of a modern electricity grid that includes wind and solar energy.

Speaking of wind and solar, a rapid drop in the cost of renewables has also begun to work against coal. That includes hydropower. Hydro still accounts for the largest share of US renewable energy generation (though wind is quickly catching up), and hydro stakeholders are ramping up existing facilities with new turbines and, in some cases, new pumped energy storage equipment.

“There Is No Economy If Cities Are Under Water”

As if all this isn’t bad enough, top global companies have organized to juice the demand for clean energy. The Step-Up Declaration is just one example of recent actions coordinated through the non-profit investor group Ceres and its allies.

Ceres provides bottom line guidance for companies and investors to accelerate action on climate change and other sustainable business issues.

CleanTechnica spoke with Ceres CEO and President Mindy Lubber shortly after last month’s Global Climate Action Summit San Francisco (Ceres was on the advisory for committee for the event).

Lubber made it clear that the US would be taking action more rapidly under a strong federal decarbonization policy, but she was just as clear that decarbonizing the global economy is not a pipe dream (following comments edited for flow):

There is no doubt over recent years that the understanding of climate change, in terms of both environmental and scientific imperatives as well as economic imperatives, has clearly shifted.

We no longer have to make the case that investors need to act.

Lubber also emphasized that climate change is one element in a web of sustainability issues that companies recognize as vital to their survival:

There is no economy if cities are under water — or, if there is not enough water to run a business.

As for climate change, Lubber is seeing the conversation moving well beyond the “debate” stage:

Business leaders are organized and intelligent. They recognize the issues is theirs and not somebody else’s. They also recognize that the issue is now and not 10 years from now.

They are moving on climate change. Probably they are not moving fast enough, but but they are moving.

Since the federal government has pulled back on acting on this imperative, we are calling on private sector to do a good deal more.

Companies are committed to the decarbonization track, even if the Trump administration is not:

From a company perspective we’ve seen close to 1,300 specific actions, and 800 of those involve real leadership. That’s impressive — 400 investors with $32 trillion.

What we do is analyze risk and push the companies in our portfolios to act on climate. We’re talking about big changes from the Apples and Levi-Strausses of the world. The movement on the part of investors, companies, cities, hospitals, and large institutions has been profound.

Within Ceres’s network alone, some of the new commitments fostered by the Climate Action Summit included Levi Strauss & Co., Clif Bar, Lyft, Seventh Generation, Salesforce, Schneider Electric, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who pledged $4 billion for climate investments.

However, Lubber cautions that now is not the time for anyone to relax. Activism on the part of top business leaders is a vital piece of the decarbonization puzzle, but it is only one of many:

Right now carbon pollution costs society billions, but it’s not priced accordingly. We need to put a price on carbon.

Cities and states have renewable portfolio standards, so if we create the demand for new energy [through carbon pricing], the energy will be created. We also need to get combustion engines off the road.

We need to address utilities, transportation and buildings in a very methodical, surgical way. There won’t be a one size fits all solution. Carbon pricing is systemwide but only one piece of the puzzle.

Even if I tell you about the commitments that leading investors are making, we need to move the entire economy, not just the top 500 companies. We’ve got a lot of educating to do with business and consumers.

Get Ready For Behavior Change

If you caught that thing about consumers, that’s where the rubber hits the road. Some of the changes involve seemingly minor issues that can blow up into massive cultural clashes that thwart progress.

If you remember the lightbulb wars, you know what we’re talking about.

Lubber foresees that the up-and-coming generation will be more receptive to change:

The younger generation does understand these issues more. For example, plastic bag and plastic straw bans. If we stop using them, people will start using other things.

Some of it is changing behavior, part of it will be policy change, and part of it business.

So for example, when Starbucks changes, life will not be any worse without plastic straws.

The momentum is there, the debate is different, we are making progress, and we are moving forward.

Make America Relevant Again!

So, where is the leader of the free world going with all of this? Back in 2012, President-to-be Trump made his position on climate change quite clear (via Twitter, of course):

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

If the logic of that escapes you, join the club. For that matter, China is still committed to building hundreds (yes, hundreds) of new coal power plants, so what do they have to gain by fomenting support for a global energy transition?

Anyways, Trump later walked back the idea that government pencil-pushers from China could perpetrate a global scam enlisting thousands of science professionals. However, his statements as a candidate for President and his actions as President still push climate science as a smoke-and-mirrors thing.

What About All Those Coal Jobs?

What isn’t smoke and mirrors is the death of US coal jobs.

In the lead-up to the energy transition of today, improvements in mining technology has already squeezed hundreds of thousands of jobs out of the US coal sector. Energy efficiency upgrades to coal power plants are also helping to decouple coal production from new job opportunities in coal mining communities.

Even with some recent help from strong export demand, there is no turning back the mechanization clock for labor. The transition to natural gas and renewables for power generation is just the latest step in a long, irreversible decline in coal mining jobs, promises or no promises.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo (screenshot): Via GCAS 2018.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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