During the 2016 campaign and in various postelection rallies, President Trump promised to save America’s flagging coal industry and put the nation’s coal miners “back to work.” While Trump continues to labor under the delusion that easing emissions standards will somehow resuscitate the coal industry, his administration’s own numbers tell a different story. In fact, more U.S. coal plants have been deactivated in the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency than were taken offline during President Obama’s entire first term. Domestic coal use in 2018 was also the lowest it’s been since Jimmy Carter was in office.
Cheap natural gas is one reason for coal’s demise, but the more interesting—and much more important—part of the story is the role that renewables, specifically wind and solar, are playing in the protracted fade-out of our dirtiest fuel. As for job creation, the 2018 U.S. Energy and Employment Report found that there are three times as many Americans now working in clean energy jobs as there are in the fossil fuel industry. For quite some time, conventional wisdom has held that renewables pose a serious threat to the future of coal. Now it seems clear the future has arrived.
Just ask the people in my home state of Texas, of all places. In a just-published report, scientists at Rice University in Houston conclude that the state could quit coal cold-turkey today and still have energy to spare—all thanks to recent advances in renewables. As one of the coauthors told the Houston Chronicle, “There is nowhere else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is. Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”
The authors acknowledge that Texas is uniquely equipped to be in this enviable position. Ample winds along its Gulf Coast and in its western plains have helped make Texas the country’s largest producer of wind energy. And its famed size and sunshine have made it one of the fastest-growing states in terms of solar capacity, which industry analysts predict will reach 3,000 megawatts next year—up from just 15 megawatts in 2010.
Where does all of this progress leave coal? Out in the cold. The state’s coal-fired power plants are shutting down or being seasonally mothballed at rates never witnessed before. And according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which provides electric power to more than 23 million Texans, future energy projects in the state are trending—mightily—in favor of wind and solar. One recent chart released by the consortium predicts that these two renewables will generate 86 percent of the megawattage of those future projects. How much coal is in that queue? Precisely 0 percent.
Texas isn’t jumping on the renewables bandwagon out of some official commitment to curb climate change, or because it’s suddenly turned its back on the fossil fuel industry that helped make it an international economic powerhouse. Texas is joining the club for the same reason that so many other states are joining: It makes sound economic sense. As Dan Cohan, one of the Rice study’s coauthors, puts it, “It’s the cheapest way to do things, whether or not you care about the environment.” The new year brought with it a Wall Street Journal story that pithily sums up where things are headed nationally. Under the headline “Utilities Speed Up Closure of Coal-Fired Power Plants,” the article traces the phenomenon in large part to the “more economic alternatives” now provided by wind and solar.
As environmentalists, we’d love for governments, utilities, and energy companies to put climate and air quality at the very top of their priority lists. Happily, more and more are doing just that. But as pragmatists, we should acknowledge that money, in the form of savings and/or profits, is going to be the determining factor in the growth of renewables. The good news is that climate advocacy and renewable technology have combined in such a way as to take the still-young clean energy sector to the next level. As it gets bigger, its products and its infrastructure will get cheaper. And as they get cheaper, dirty coal will look more and more like a loser—even to those who were perfectly fine with it before.
Here’s the thing: As disingenuous as President Trump has shown himself to be, I do believe he’s sincere in his desire to save the coal industry, even if it’s just to shore up votes in Appalachian swing states and appease the corporate fat cats to whom he’s indebted.
The only problem? He can’t do it. It’s too late.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
To help a community leave its dirty energy economy behind, advocates must fight for local representation, equity, and retraining that prepares workers for high-quality jobs.
With grassroots groups and other partners, J. C. Kibbey is fighting for one of the country’s most ambitious climate bills—and a just transition away from coal.
Plus, the solar industry pleads for mercy, and the president says he thinks about climate change “all the time.” Hmm.
Laura and Gary Dumm reanimate classic horror-flick monsters in bone-chilling scenes of the Anthropocene.
Trump also kills 20 years of child health research and continues to neglect chemical safety.
Dan Sawmiller, NRDC’s Ohio energy policy director, forms unexpected alliances to build out renewables in the Buckeye State.
In Texas, tax breaks for fossil fuels outpace tax breaks for renewables by a rate of two to one. Guess which sector is whining about unfairness?
With its plan to source all city energy needs from renewable power by 2022, Albuquerque, a winner of the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, is also jump-starting its solar workforce.
The Trump administration undermines an historic trail, tries desperately to save just one coal-fired power plant, and sells out the endangered delta smelt.
The air in southwestern Indiana is bad enough without the emissions from yet another proposed polluter.
Wyoming, the country’s top coal producer, is wrangling support for wind power—and not a moment too soon.
A Harvard study says clean energy could save billions of dollars—and thousands of lives—every year.
Utilities aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court’s Clean Power Plan verdict to green up their act.
Ten years after the disaster at a Tennessee power plant, the cleanup crew is seeking justice. At the same time, the Trump administration is weakening protections for this toxic pollution.
Americans know which way the energy winds are blowing—and in the heartland, they’re blowing mightily.
Ten percent of the state’s greenhouse gases come from a single coal-fired power plant—which will soon trade coal for solar.
In the past five years, solar capacity in the South has increased nearly thirtyfold.