The Secretary of Energy was responsible for conducting an audit of the United States Electricity Grid, in order to determine why coal plants have been closing, and what can be done to rescue them.
Coal plants in the United States alone cost the economy between $330 billion and $500 billion every year through damage to crops and farmland contamination, hospitalization as a result of airborne pollutants, and impacts to water quality. Trump likes to ignore these numbers for the sake of argument for protecting coal burning and the jobs that they create.
The Trump Message
One of the main reasons Trump is excited by coal is that it is a reliable means of generating electricity that renewable energies like wind and solar cannot match. However, a recent study by the Department of Energy reveals an interesting truth; Cheap natural gas combined with a flat electricity demand has been the major reason for the closure of so many coal plants, not as a result of increasing renewable installation.
Another reason cited by Trump was the new measures implemented by Obama in the Clean Power Plan, essentially rules that limited the amount of pollution that power plants were allowed to create.
Indeed, the highest amount of coal plants were retired in 2015 when Obama implemented the rules, but this was a result of the age of the coal plants, rather than the rules themselves. Most coal plants have a useful life of 35 to 50 years, while the median age of the coal plants in the United States is 39.
Closing these plants wasn’t purely the result of regulation, but more focused on the fact that they were getting costly to repair and maintain.
The cool thing about wind and solar is that they are much less costly to maintain. In fact, new solar farms have robots that clean the panels, while wind farms use robots to climb the towers to inspect and of the turbine blades, as well as using microwaves to monitor the structural integrity of the blades on the inside. These tasks would take humans significantly longer to do, and in the case of using microwaves, impossible for humans to conduct safely.
This allows wind and solar to operate at higher capacity, and adds flexibility and increased reliability to the overall grid, not the opposite as hoped as the Trump administration.
The reason coal is struggling is the wholesale electricity market, where the sources of electricity that are the cheapest are the ones in which electricity is bought first. Natural gas and renewables are underbidding coal and nuclear, mostly as a result of lower maintenance and upkeep costs.
It is worth noting the fact that nuclear is within the same category as coal. Nuclear plants actually provide value to communities in which they are located, and they do not harm the population living nearby. The jobs created by these plants are of higher quality, the higher pay they demand supports the local economy, and workers pay a greater amount of income tax as well.
In total, the over 100 nuclear reactors contribute between $40 billion and $50 billion that goes directly back to the local community in supporting schools, roads, and hospitals.
The main argument brought forward by Trump’s study is that the electrical grid needs a variety of fuel types in order to create resilience, something that has always been true, and which is why there is a variety of energy sources within the grid.
Hydro plants generally don’t operate at full capacity since there is a limited need for full power at all times, but can be adjusted to meet fluctuations in demand throughout the days and seasons.
Natural gas, wind and solar can also be turned on and off, and with the advent of cheap storage from batteries, there is also an added degree of resiliency that is being brought into the grid.
What can be Done About It?
The findings from this report are all accurate, and the need to evaluate and support a variety of electricity generation types based on more than lowest cost is definitely something that needs to be addressed.
However, new advances in renewable technologies have made solar and wind much more affordable than government models have ever predicted, and they create the kinds of in-demand jobs in infrastructure and engineering that support the jobs of the future.
However, taking a backward look at the possibilities of making coal a greater part of the electrical grid is not the solution that would benefit many people. Support programs that would benefit miners and coal power plant workers to transition from 19th century technology to the 21st century is possible, and has already been achieved in many US states.
California’s solar apprenticeship program, along with the State of Oregon work to develop plans for diversifying the skill set of coal workers. 90% of those who participate in apprenticeships are able to find new careers in the solar industry. Trump even announced an executive order that boosts access to apprenticeships, and those in the coal industry should seriously consider this move.
The US should take the lead, or it risks losing out on this opportunity. Chinese companies are currently offering training to US coal miners to become wind farmers.
Specifically, coal miners are ideal candidates for these positions, as they already understand the mechanical and electrical systems and skills that can be transferred to the manufacturing line to make the large turbines necessary for US wind farms.
In any case, the coal industry is shrinking, and there is public pressure to provide quality jobs to these workers to avoid even lower quality of life for these workers. Wind and solar energy are flexible enough that they can be located in states that have the highest amount of the remaining coal jobs.
Wyoming is the state with the largest coal production, but it also has one of the lowest population densities and the highest wind speeds, thanks to it’s close proximity to the Ocean and low-lying land.
North Dakota and West Virginia are in similar positions. The plains that are found in North Dakota and the similar low population density make it an ideal candidate to increase the amount of wind energy in the state. West Virginia is home to the a large amount of coal-fired power plants, but could also host a large amount of solar energy.
Google’s Project Sunroof shows that about ¾ homes in the state could support solar energy on their rooftops. Not only would this create significant job opportunities for coal workers, but the installation of solar roofs would save residents about $8,000 over the lifetime of the solar installation.
Overall, solar and wind are becoming cheaper, and it is opening up potential for shifting jobs from the coal industry to cleaner energy jobs of the 21st century. The benefits are more than just better jobs, but the air will be cleaner, and people can expect to save money and live better lives as a result.
Instead of Trump proving that coal is the future, he’s shown that the industry needs to adapt, and maintaining the status quo of more coal is not the solution. Supporting a transition to better and cleaner forms of electricity is a solution that all Americans should get behind.