Trump’s atrocious coal plan: A rear-view mirror vision, unconnected to reality

  1. The coal fleet, the source of most utility carbon pollution, was old, inefficient and had never been modernized. These simply weren’t very good plants.
  2. Utilities looked at climate science and weather evidence and said to themselves, “The world is going low-carbon. We need to be part of that, and we can’t justify huge investments in band-aiding a technology that is going away very soon.” (Such expensive and ineffective band-aids are at the heart of the Trump EPA proposal.)
  3. Economics. Wind, solar and natural gas are already cheaper than coal in many states (including such laggards as Indiana and such surprising CPP compliers as Oklahoma). This drove coal retirements very rapidly in most states, leaving the remaining coal fleet, mostly in monopoly markets, with more than half its units losing money. Already announced retirements are not the end of the story — the coal fleet is going to keep shrinking unless the Trump administration reaches even deeper into its Harry Truman playbook and tries to nationalize power plants, as Truman did the steel mills. In Texas, where wind is particularly cheap and abundant, brand new coal plants are being written off by their owners as economic white elephants because the power they generate is twice as expensive as wind.
  4. Transitions like this, even ones simultaneously powered by social, regulatory and economic tailwinds, usually move slowly because stakeholders — politicians, regulators, corporate managers — aren’t facing persistent demands that they make decisions about the future today. The massive mobilization of citizens around coal plants — their pollution, their costs and their climate risks — backed for the first time in my lifetime with meaningful philanthropic resources — meant that normal inertia was not allowed to set the pace. The Clean Power Plan’s looming requirements, then, for several critical years, provided an additional tool for reform advocates to push public service commissions, utilities, cities and corporate power customers to move rapidly toward a cheaper, cleaner and safer low-carbon future.

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Carl Pope

Carl Pope

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg