Yay! Coal In My Stocking! Critiques Of Climate Action Amidst Moves To Renewable Energy

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Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian saint known for secret gift giving. By Dickensian times, poor people were thought to be made unfortunate as punishment from God, so, wealthy children got gifts and candies on Christmas, while poor families were fortunate to get coal with which to heat their homes. Eventually, the reference to coal in a stocking meant a punishment, or at the very least something unpleasant.

Today, coal in a stocking is a metaphor for loss of the industry that fueled the US since the industrial era. Yet several conservative organizations continue to promote coal in light energy markets in full transition mode, both in the US and abroad, toward renewable energy. The influence of these organizations is far-reaching and permeates the field of climate deniers.

coal in my stocking

In the US, roughly 30% of all electricity comes from coal: the rest comes from natural gas, nuclear, and renewables like wind and solar. They’re enormously useful, massively valuable, and hugely important geopolitically, and they need to stay in the ground if we are to begin to tackle global warming.

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But not everyone agrees. Here’s a list of proponents of coal and their 2018 actions to maintain its status in the US and global energy mix.

Robert E. Murray, a longtime Trump supporter who donated $300,000 to the president’s inauguration, wrote a memo detailing a wish list of environmental rollbacks, and the White House and federal agencies have completed, or are on track to fulfill, most of the 16 detailed requests.

Wells Griffith, a spokesperson for the US Department of Energy, was mocked by audience members as he attempted to tout the virtues of coal at the COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland.

The Heartland Institute cries out that the premature retirement of the nation’s coal fleet is causing electricity prices to rise and will lead to rolling blackouts in many parts of the country.

The American Enterprise Institute says that increases in US oil and gas production have helped counteract efforts by OPEC and Russia to raise global energy prices.

Australia’s Coalition MPs have warned against the “demonisation” of coal.

The list is quite exhaustive.

coal in my stocking

Negotiating the Move Away from Coal: Analysis of Discourse

How are people in the climate action community dealing with fossil fuels’ demise? Many are wholly behind a rapid, if disruptive, transition to 100% renewable energies (RE) in our cities and towns. Others who see the long-term benefit of RE do sometimes waver, unsure about how quickly and effectively that the world can adapt to a fossil fuel-free world.

A December, 2018 CleanTechnica article titled Coal is on its way out — gas is next offers us some interesting insights about how people are negotiating — and sometimes feeling uncertain — about the move away from coal and its cousin, natural gas.

In this article, author George Harvey’s thesis is, “A gas plant is being put out of business by lithium-ion batteries, because the energy storage costs, combined with the cost of the electricity from solar and wind plants, are more attractive than the cost of the least expensive fossil fuels.” A survey of comments that found some fault with the author’s premise allows us to the multiple layers of discourse around fossil fuels.

Comment (C)1: Gas plants are highly dispatchable, unlike coal, which makes them good fill in for wind and solar.

This type of comment parallels the utility and fossil industries, which are doing their best to dampen the enthusiasm for RE, injecting what they see as a dose of reality into the drive to get runaway climate change under control.

C2: The next phase will be, “We’re vital backup! We’re your insurance against power failure!” That one there is a last ditch, although for a decade or so they will probably have a point. After that, outside of isolated facilities or crisis backups, there won’t be a market.

The global energy transformation necessary to successfully slow and then halt climate change will change the power dynamics among nations, and that concerns many people, including what type of security arrangements will be needed to keep the peace among the powers that vie for an energy advantage in the coming renewables era.

C3: We use nearly 25 billion MWh / year of electricity, and we have 127 MHh battery the biggest one as of 2018. We still have long way to go, and I believe we need a new battery tech. This way we will have to wait until 2100… unless a new storage tech will not be available very soon, we will newer get rid of FF, CO2 levels will go down but not as fast as we need.

The issue of intermittency from solar and wind means that reliable power creates a need for energy storage, and many people argue that battery storage is currently not efficient enough to be cost effective, or needs traditional fossil fuels or nuclear power to supplement.

C4: We can install far more wind and solar now, if people wanted it, yet in Germany prefer their coal.

Today, nearly a quarter of all electricity produced in Germany still comes from burning lignite, often called brown coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, making Germany the world’s leader in the mining and burning of lignite. Chancellor Angela Merkel is faced with mounting challenges, including from the far right, in eastern regions where a bulk of those jobs would be lost if coal is replaced by RE. The far-right Alternative for Germany, the leading opposition party, has questioned Germany’s national consensus on the role humans play in contributing to climate change.

C5: Fortunately for gas plant owners, the plants are fairly cheap.

While this concept may have been true up until recently, a new report reveals 42% of global coal capacity is currently unprofitable, and the US could save $78 billion by closing coal-fired power plants in line with the Paris Climate Accord’s climate goals. This industry-disrupting trend will become more evident as the cost of renewable energy dips below fossil fuel generation.

C6: I guess domestic heating will be the last bastion of the FF industry.

For many living in cold weather climates, the short-term goal is not zero fossil fuels, though they’d like to get there eventually. They see the tremendous concentration of energy in liquid fossil fuels as a great back-up system, with small steps taken annually to replace boilers with solar, for example, or as a fallback for when the renewables need filling in.

C7: And shipping and long distance air travel. Unfortunately.

It is clear that the shipping and air industries need to move to renewable and alternative fuels to reduce the sector’s impact on the environment to reduce local pollutants, comply with regulation, mitigate against climate change, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Alternative fuels often assessed are liquefied natural gas (LNG), methanol, liquid hydrogen (LH2) (with and without carbon capture and storage), biodiesel, straight vegetable oil (SVO), and bio-LNG. Right now, it seems as if there is there is no widely available fuel to manage climate change and local pollutants.

Final Thoughts

Yes, societal action has been stymied by fossil fuel industry lobbyists like Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS. But the US needs to completely decarbonize — get to net-zero carbon emissions — by the middle of the 21st century. As climate change advocates, we know how important it is to connect with our audiences through effective messaging.

Let’s keep getting the word out and helping people who are concerned about the shift to renewable energy to know what’s happening in the quickly changing field so they, too, can gain the confidence to move toward 100% RE in their lives.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1251 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna