Game Over For Coal: Another Day, Another Zero Carbon Emissions Pledge

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The gigantic US utility Xcel Energy stole the media spotlight earlier this week with a pledge to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050, and wouldn’t you know here comes another US utility to beat them at their own game. Yesterday, Colorado’s Platte River Power Authority one-upped Xcel with a zero carbon pledge by 2030.

To be clear, neither utility is betting on 100% renewables to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, the twin announcements underscore the impotency of the Trump administration’s attempts to prop up the ailing US coal industry.

The Zero Carbon Emissions Goal

Our friends over at The Coloradoan have the scoop on the Platte River Power Authority’s new climate change goal (please follow the link and support local journalism).

Platte River has already begun to diversify its energy sources. A combination of wind, solar, and hydropower currently accounts for about 21% of its 931-megawatt summertime capacity. Still, 65% of its generating capacity is in coal power plants.

What’s interesting is Platte River only generates a tiny fraction from natural gas. They could be looking to skip right over gas and go straight to renewables, though it’s more likely that their dependence on gas will grow as coal shrinks, at least in the short run.

As with Xcel, Platte River was careful to express its goal as a zero carbon emissions goal, not necessarily a 100% renewable energy goal.

For now at least, carbon sequestration is still on the table. The utility is also counting on performance improvements and cost efficiencies in energy storage, grid infrastructure, and distributed energy resources to reach its zero carbon emissions goal.

The End Of The Road For Coal

Platte River is facing the same factors that are motivating other US utilities to ditch coal. One of those factors is pressure from ratepayers. The local communities served by Platte River have organized and advocated for renewable energy, and they have adopted their own renewable energy goals. The community goals are non-binding but they send a clear signal that ratepayers are not messing around.

On the bottom line side of things, Platte River is looking at the falling cost of wind and solar compared to the cost of keeping its aging coal fleet on life support.

Last December, The Coloradoan reported a major step along Platte River’s renewable energy path (follow this link, too!) when the utility announced that it was considering closing its Rawhide Unit One coal power plant by 2030. That’s still a long way off but it accelerates the power plant’s scheduled closure date by 17 years.

Billed as “Larimer County’s lone coal power plant and biggest polluter,” Unit One accounted for about half of the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to Fort Collins, Colorado in 2016. The city has set a goal of full carbon neutrality by 2050, and closing Unit One would carry it a long way toward that goal.

Whither Coal?

Long story short, the Xcel and Platte River announcements leave a bit of wiggle room for fossil fuels, but not much.

Against this backdrop, President* Trump’s latest attempt to prop up coal amounts to little more than the same dog-and-pony show he’s been trotting out on a regular basis to pacify coal stakeholders.

In the latest development, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was rolling back emissions standards, ostensibly to enable the construction of new coal power plants.

Good luck with that. Early in his administration, Trump ordered up a new grid study that was supposed to make the case for more coal power, but it somehow turned into a shoutout for the US wind industry.

Then he sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry to argue the coal case before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and that went over like a lead balloon.

Meanwhile, everyone is noticing that coal power plants in the US have been falling like dominoes during Trump’s tenure in the White House.

That’s partly thanks to the Energy Department, which has been forging ahead with its renewable energy mission. That includes everything from fostering solar power programs that help cities like Fort Collins achieve their carbon emissions goals, to talking up the US wind industry for potential investors and sponsoring foundational research aimed at shaving carbon emissions down to the bone.

Sneaky! So much for all those promises to coal miners, their families, and their communities.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo: Platte River Power Authority.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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