Saturday, August 23, 2014

Keep coal in the ground? Maybe

There must be some interesting discussions in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s house. McConnell, Republican senator from Tennessee, is an avid champion of Big Coal. His wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, sits on the board of directors of Bloomberg Philanthropies (yes, that Bloomberg) which has just as avidly vowed to eliminate the coal industry in the U.S.

You’re probably thinking, “Now, Jeff, that’s not what they want to do, they just want to replace old coal-fired electrical generation plants with more environmentally friendly generating methods.” On the face of it, you’d be right. But go to the website of Bloomberg philanthropies and you’ll see they’ve partnered with Sierra Club to “end the coal era.”

Oh, sure, there’s a lot of green-sounding stuff like “retire outdated coal plants,” and “close dirty coal-burning plants.” So, okay, they just want to replace the outdated and dirty ones, right? Except that Bloomberg and Sierra Club consider all coal-fired plants to be dirty and outdated, including the new ones slated to come online to replace the old ones. In fact, Bloomberg is proud claim that it has blocked construction of all new coal-fired electrical plants in the U.S. and is now determined to “keep the coal in the ground in Appalachia.”

That no doubt comes as pretty bad news to the coal miners of America. When I first read about the Environmental Protection Administration’s “war on coal,” I thought it was yet more right-wing hyperbole. Then I saw the Bloomberg and Sierra websites and, to be honest with you, it sent a chill down my spine. Leave the coal in the ground? The cheap source of heat and light that’s helped power America for nearly two centuries? Ye gad, how many families is that gong to bankrupt?

Not that many, as it turns out, and maybe none. While researching the issue I was surprised to find that even US News & World Report, which is a fairly conservative yet thoughtfully pragmatic publication (its editors even admitted George W. Bush was a worse president than Richard Nixon) refuses to stand in Big Coal’s corner.
According to an analysis by Jeff Nesbit back in June, there are only 83,000 people employed in coal production in the U.S., compared with 143,000 employed in solar and another 85,000 in the wind energy sector. And both industries, according to Nesbit, are booming and expected to expand rapidly at least until mid-century.

That's all well and good, but how many of those jobs are available in Tennessee and West Virginia, the heart of coal country? Not many, as it turns out. The nation's solar power hotspot, as one might expect, is in the nation's climate hotspot -- the southwest. California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and part of Texas pretty much make up the cradle of the solar energy industry. Tennessee and West Virginia have little or no solar development and, unless you're a photovoltaic scientist, you have to move to the American southwest to cash in on that boom.

Wind energy jobs are about the same. Wind farms are concentrated in "wind alley," which stretches from Canada to Mexico through the nation's midsection, and most are west of the Mississippi River. there are a few in West Virginia, up around the Pennsylvania state line, and one in Tennessee.

The point is that the jobs that are supposed to "replace" coal aren't where the coal miners are. And unless someone takes responsibility for recruiting coal miners to move from Appalachia to the American Midwest or to the Sunbelt, pays to move them and train them, and then place them in good jobs, those coal miners won't find jobs to replace the ones Bloomberg and Sierra Club want to take away from them.

There are compelling reasons to make that migration possible, reasons that touch your life and mine. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a megawatt hour of coal-fired electricity costs $95.60. For natural gas it’s $66.30. Nuclear? Well, if we can get one built it’ll cost $96.10 for per megawatt hour of power. Wind weighs in at $80.30; solar is still pricey at $130. In other words, all of those wonderful new jobs in solar and wind power will make electricity available to you and me for anywhere from a little more to a littee less than what we're paying now.

Make no mistake, I’m an avid proponent of “green” energy. But I also think there’s a lot of Pollyanna thinking in the phrase “leave coal in the ground.” It’s going to take decades to develop wind and solar, and while the environmentalists are even daring to mention nuclear power again, there won’t be a new nuke power plant even approved in my lifetime, let alone built and online.

I hope the Bloomberg/Sierra Club cabal is ultimately successful. I also hope they work just as hard at finding all of those coal miners new jobs and making sure alternate power sources are safely developed to replace coal. Maybe then the coal can stay in the ground.

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