The Great Coal-lapse

Illustration by Elisem Conlin

In spite of any magical thinking, “beautiful, clean coal” doesn’t exist. Coal is the dirtiest fuel. It emits the highest proportion of carbon dioxide compared to other fossil fuels as well as other noxious substances such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and mercury.

Fortunately, coal is on the way out. Germany is even managing to shutter its coal industry without sacking a single miner.

Here are just a few recent highlights from the ongoing saga of the "Great Coal-lapse."

Switzerland: The Swiss don't have a single coal mine, but they've certainly financed their share of them. The Swiss bank UBS Group said it will no longer provide project-level finance to new coal-fired power plants. UBS said it will only finance existing coal operators that have a transition strategy that supports the Paris climate agreement, or transactions that are related to renewable energy.

United Kingdom: Electricity produced from coal declined from 42% of total electricity generation in 2012 to 7% in 2017. According to U.K. National Grid data, in late May/early June the country went 18 days without any electricity generated from coal for the first time since the 1880s. In January 2018, the U.K. government laid out an implementation plan to shut down all coal-fired electricity generation plants by 2025 that do not have carbon capture and storage technology.

Battersea Power Station is a decommissioned coal-fired power plant located on the south bank of the River Thames, which is now a trendy upscale London neighbourhood.

U.S.: Since the Trump administration came to office two years ago, 50 coal-powered plants have been shuttered, and 51 have announced plans to close, according to the Sierra Club. A total of 290 have closed since 2010 (that's 40% of the U.S.'s coal power capacity). For the first time since the industrial revolution, the U.S. was expected to generate more renewable power than coal power this April, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While such a milestone highlights the shift away from coal, some of it is also because of seasonal issues. For instance, some coal plants shut down for maintenance during the spring when demand for electricity is low. The spring also tends to be a strong period for hydro and wind power. Renewable power isn't expected to surpass coal on an annual basis for at least several years.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Coal is still king in Minnesota, where it produces 40% of the state’s electricity. But Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy has announced an ambitious plan to deliver zero-carbon electricity by 2050. The US$30 billion utility has already closed a quarter of its coal-power plants and has approvals to shut down another 25%.

Xcel has slashed its carbon emissions by 38% from 2005 levels and it has pledged to get to 80% by 2030, mainly by growing its renewable energy portfolio. Natural gas and nuclear power will also be part of the transition away from coal. Xcel admits that becoming totally carbon-free will require technology that’s “not yet commercially available.” This may include hydrogen, geothermal or next-generation nuclear, as well as advanced batteries to store excess electricity.

Wise County, Va.: In the heart of Appalachia in southern Virginia, a US$4.6 million project will transform a coal mine into a solar-energy farm supplying a local data centre. The site of the proposed 3.5-megawatt project was last mined in 1957.
Denver, Colo.: What happens to coal miners when coal production ends? The state’s new Democratic administration wants to support workers through this transition. It has just introduced a set of environmental bills that aim to:

• cut state-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and to add a “social cost of carbon” in evaluating future energy projects,
• require utilities to file workforce transition plans when closing coal plants, and
• create a “Just Transition Office” to help workers at coal-fired power plants find new employment through benefits, education and training.

It's the kind of blueprint that we hope to see replicated as states and countries around the world transition to a post-coal world.

A version of this story first appeared in the Summer Issue of Corporate Knights.

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