Yes, what about bringing back coal jobs? US President* Donald J. Trump made coal a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, but apparently he has given up on the whole idea. Everybody is talking about the border wall and nobody is talking about coal jobs. Shocker! Meanwhile, just last week two more coal power plants found themselves on the retirement list, threatening coal jobs at coal mines in the area.
Coal power plants have been dropping like flies all throughout the Trump administration, so it’s dog bites man when another one bites the dust. Nevertheless, last week’s news was especially newsworthy — and Trump himself made sure of that.
Coal Jobs Or Not, TVA Closes Coal Power Plants
The two coal plants are owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a sprawling public corporation that serves 9 million customers in seven southeastern states.
TVA has been shrinking its coal power generation assets over the past 10 years and the hurt isn’t over. The current plan calls for more shrinkage in favor of natural gas, renewables, and nuclear. Compared to a 58% share in 2007, coal was down to 26% in 2018 and will hit a target of 22% by 2027.
In other words, it should not have been national news last week when the TVA board voted in favor of closing two of its six remaining coal power plants. But, it was because the President made it news.
Earlier in the week, while TVA was still mulling the closure of the two coal power plants, Trump himself intervened to influence the decision.
AP got the scoop on Trump’s lobbying effort on behalf of coal:
Trump posted a message Monday on his Twitter account declaring “coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix” and urging the TVA to “give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!” The tweet was a welcome surprise in Muhlenberg County, where Trump won nearly 72 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Wait, what about the other power plant? Well, that’s the whole point.
AP reported that local residents in the area of Paradise #3 were pleasantly surprised to have the President for whom they voted take note of their community. More likely, though, he was shouting over their heads. The message was aimed at one of his major campaign donors, Robert Murray. Mr. Murray’s mining company, Murray Energy, feeds coal to Paradise #3.
Thank you, Captain Obvious. Anyway, Murray’s millions were of no avail. Nor were Trump’s appointees on the TVA Board. On Thursday, February 14, the board rendered its decision and issued a public announcement under the headline “TVA Board Acts to Ensure Future Flexibility, Efficient Generation System.”
That headline pretty much paints the whole picture. The rest is all downhill from there:
After a detailed review of fuel, transmission, economic and environmental impacts, as well as reviewing public input, the Board approved the retirement of Paradise Unit 3 and the Bull Run facility. Both are older coal generating units that were not designed to efficiently respond to today’s continually fluctuating power needs of customers.
With more than 12,000 employees overall, TVA is reasonably sure it can find new jobs for workers at the two soon-to-be-closed power plants. though not necessarily coal-related jobs.
Coal jobs at the feeder mines, though, are beyond TVA’s control.
For the record, Bull Run is located near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Its 881 megawatts of capacity will retire by 2023. Paradise #3 will be the last of three units to retire at the Paradise facility, in western Kentucky. The two other Paradise units each had a capacity of 704 megawatts. They were retired in 2017 and replaced with natural gas at the same site. The third unit has a capacity of 1,150 megawatts and retirement is anticipated within the next few years.
Coal Jobs And The New Green Deal
By the way, did you know that TVA was created in 1933 as a centerpiece of the original New Deal? Yes, it was. Among other job-creating endeavors, the original New Deal fostered the fight against poverty by connecting energy access, energy jobs, and regional economic growth.
TVA’s original charter also involved an element of environmental stewardship. That thread became somewhat tangled during the generations-long push for electrification, but TVA does take credit for launching the first green power program in the southeast.
All this is by way of saying that the proposed Green New Deal has a direct historical precedent here in the US. Much as politicians of a certain persuasion would like to ignore it, the original New Deal ushered in the heyday of the American middle class with a considerable assist from new energy jobs.
The Green New Deal makes that same energy-to-prosperity connection, only with 21st century clean energy technology.
Anyways, with or without the Green New Deal, coal power plants will continue to close and coal jobs will continue to melt away.
No Country For Coal Jobs
Wait, that’s not all. The TVA announcement really twisted the knife when it comes to coal jobs.
In the same announcement for the coal plant closures, TVA also states that the board “approved new renewable solutions that will better equip TVA and local power companies with the flexibility to meet changing customer needs.”
Do tell! Here’s another jab from TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson. He hinted that the two power plant closures are just the beginning of a real sea change:
Over the past six months, TVA has worked with solar developers to add 674 megawatts of additional renewable energy to meet customer requests, and this trend is continuing to grow. TVA and local power companies are partnering on research projects that will help us better address the desire for choice in energy while continuing the benefits of reliable, low-cost public power for the Valley.
Ouch! It sounds like that 22% share for coal in 2027 might be overly optimistic.
For one thing, natural gas stakeholders have been making the case that gas is a more flexible, efficient fit in a grid integrated with renewable energy, and Paradise #3 proves its case. The plant was designed to run constantly, whether or not anybody needs the electricity.
That thing about “desire for choice” should also set off red flags in coal communities. Community choice aggregation is emerging as a powerful tool for ratepayers to wrench more clean power from their utilities without necessarily paying a premium.
Typically ratepayers have to opt in to aggregation plans, but this spring San Francisco is diving into an opt-out plan that will enroll 360,000 ratepayers. If all goes well, look for other cities to climb on board.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to TVA for some more details on those research projects, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo (cropped): Paradise power plant via TVA.
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