Obama reigns in power plant emissions as coal industry teeters into bankruptcy

Remember a few years ago the “debate” over whether CO2 is pollution?  With its announcement today of the “Clean Power Plan” the Obama Administration makes it clear that debate is over, and that action is required now rather than later.  The plan calls for strict rules over CO2 emissions, and for increasing investment in renewable energy (solar power, wind power) as well as smart grid technologies including grid-scale energy storage systems.

What was that debate over?  It was claimed CO2 is a natural part of the atmosphere.   All of us who are animals exhale CO2 a few times a minute in a constant exchange of gasses with the atmosphere.  Surely CO2 is a natural element in the atmosphere, it was suggested.  But, CO2 emissions from coal fired power plants are unnatural, because that CO2 had been sequestered by the planet millions of years ago and, in our thirst for “progress” and the instant wealth coming from fossil fuels, we’ve been burning coal and natural gas and crude oil like there’s no tomorrow.  The result is rapidly increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, which results in rapidly rising temperature, increases in extreme weather events, rising sea-levels, increasing numbers of wildfires, threats to the food system from crop loss, increasing extinction rate, wars over scarce resources, and more.

Some of those effects are already happening.

The plan also shows awareness of a broader issue than just climate change.  In the 2nd paragraph of the Fact Sheet, while reminding the reader that climate change is a real effect that is threatening us all, it says “the percentage of Americans with asthma has more than doubled, and climate change is putting those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital”.  Asthma isn’t caused by climate change, but burning fossil fuels is increasingly known to cause asthma and at the same time fossil fuel consumption is known to be causing climate change.  Later it says

Provide significant public health benefits – The Clean Power Plan, and other policies put in place to drive a cleaner energy sector, will reduce premature deaths from power plant emissions by nearly 90 percent in 2030 compared to 2005 and decrease the pollutants that contribute to the soot and smog and can lead to more asthma attacks in kids by more than 70 percent. The Clean Power Plan will also avoid up to 3,600 premature deaths, lead to 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, and prevent 300,000 missed work and school days.

Hence, the plan makes a nod to the negative health impact of fossil fuel consumption.

What’s the plan?

  • Carbon standards –  Issued by the EPA, these are the first-ever national standards that address carbon pollution from power plants.  They’ll cover two kinds of plants:
    • Fossil fuel-fired electric steam generating units (generally, coal- and oil-fired power plants)
    • Natural gas-fired combined cycle generating units.
  • Individual states develop plans to meet the carbon standards with the power plants in their state.
  • Energy efficiency – This is seen a remaining key mechanism for carbon reduction.  By reducing electricity consumption w/o reducing benefit, the overall pollution rate is decreased.
  • Emissions trading – Ultimately the state plans put requirements on individual power plants.  Those plants can either clean up their act, or buy indulgences, er, emissions rate credits or allowances.  Hence, there’ll be a “market” for buying/selling emissions credits.
  • Rewards states for early adherence to the plan.
  • Grid reliability – the plan must ensure the grid remains reliable while adopting large amounts of renewable energy.  This isn’t clearly spelled out, but it’s safe to assume grid energy storage systems will play a big role.
  • Claims the carbon targets for states is “fair”
  • Environmental/Social justice – Requires that states “engage” with low-income communities in developing the plan.  Currently those communities are subjected to the worst pollution, and end up paying the highest health cost.

The deadline for states to submit plans is September 6, 2016.  (note: in the middle of the election – hence, this will be a big issue in the election)  States that get extensions have a September 6, 2017 deadline, and must submit the final plan by September 6, 2018.

Implementation can begin NOW, and the period for mandatory reductions doesn’t begin until 2020.  The goal is to meet 2030 climate change goals.

There are states, cities and businesses around the country with already-existing plans that can be incorporated into the new plan.

  • 50 states with demand-side energy efficiency programs
  • 37 states with renewable portfolio standards or goals
  • 10 states with market-based greenhouse gas emission programs
  • 25 states with energy efficiency standards or goals

The plan notes that this will create a zillion jobs due to a process that’s already underway.  Namely, renewable energy systems (solar, wind) is already rapidly falling in price and becoming more competitive against fossil fuel energy systems.  There’s already millions of jobs in the U.S. (and around the world) involved with installing, designing, maintaining, etc, renewable energy systems.

Because the plan puts a big emphasis on renewable energy, it’ll spur more investment in the factories etc to make that stuff, lowering the prices even more.  Even more people will be hired to install all this stuff, because there’s a huge task ahead of us to displace enough of the Coal, Oil and Natural Gas power plants with renewable energy systems.

Those jobs and new factories and whatnot – that’s all economic activity.   The politicians whose job is to protect the fossil fuel industry like to say this sort of measure is “Jobs Killing”.  Sorry, no, that’s not how it is.  Yes, existing jobs will be rendered irrelevant as the coal fired power plants go away, but new jobs will (and are) spring up to replace those jobs.

In other news today, the 2nd biggest coal producer in the U.S., Alpha Natural Resources, filed for bankruptcy.  According to a Forbes.com report, the company was launched in 2002 and grew big by making debt-fueled large acquisitions.  It’s possible the company simply leveraged itself too highly, and ran into a liquidity problem forcing it into bankruptcy.  In the filing they claimed the coal industry has  “encountered a variety of macroeconomic headwinds and regulatory obstacles that collectively have distressed most of the domestic coal industry” – but at the same time the company lost $875 million in 2014.

According to a SeekingAlpha report from April 2015, which predicted Alpha Natural would not declare bankruptcy, the coal industry was being hurt by lower prices and lower demand for coal.  In Appha Natural’s case it resulted in negative operating cash flow of $60 million.

I suppose that “headwinds and regulatory obstacles” refer to events like the Clean Power Plan we just discussed.  I can find zero sympathy – these companies have been selling poison to us all, and it has to stop.  If that means erasing an industry then so be it.

We collectively need to transition away from the stone age energy paradigm – burning stuff to get light, heat and motion – and transition to a new energy paradigm based on renewable resources.

Kentucky – you need to give up on the “Coal, Kentucky’s Ace in the Hole” idea.  (I lived in Kentucky for about 17 years, and the TV channels frequently carried a “public service announcement” centering on that idea)

The following videos show the sentiment of Coal people in Kentucky.  Yes, there are existing jobs held by people in Coal Country.  Clearly those jobs are at risk of being lost as the coal industry winds down.  But does that mean the people in Appalachia have no choice of other work?  Nope.  What about installing wind farms in the mountains?

In one of these videos Sen. McConnell says 5,000 Kentuckians are out of work (as of December 2013).  Widespread adoption of renewable energy systems means many more than 5,000 jobs.  Which is better?  To preserve 5,000 jobs whose result is to extract and sell poison?  Or to enact lots more jobs whose result is electricity systems with vastly vastly reduced environmental impact.

They talk about Coal as a “way of life” because there’s so many Appalachian’s involved in the industry.  That happens to be the same phrase used to protect displays of the Confederate Battle Flag, to protect groups like the Ku Klux Klan to squash the rights of African Americans, and so forth.  Within the last month or so display of the Confederate Battle Flag received a huge drubbing following the massacre of African Americans in a church in South Carolina, and now several states are having to rethink their state flag (if it contains the Confederate Battle Flag) and in other places decades-long displays of that flag have come to an end.

In other words – a “way of life” that’s been shown to cause negative poisonous results can come to an end.

Coal and other fossil fuels cause negative poisonous results for all of us.  That way of life needs to come to an end.

The last video is Pres. Obama’s announcement ceremony for the Clean Power Plan.  He talked about how hard this was going to be, if only because of powerful foes like Ky. Sen. McConnell whose early opposition to this plan is shown below.    But he also said we are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and we are the last generation who can do something about it.  We have no choice but to work to address this problem.  Now is the only time to take action.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.


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