Donald Trump seems to love nothing more than basking in applause at rallies outside the Beltway, so he rolled out one of his campaign pledges again last week, in Louisville: “As we speak, we are preparing new executive actions to save our coal industry and to save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work. The miners are coming back.” While he was short on specifics, he has already taken the first worrisome steps toward deregulation: Last month, he signed a measure to quash an “overly burdensome” Obama administration rule aimed at preventing the coal mining industry from dumping waste into nearby streams.
But Trump’s promises ring hollow. It’s not regulation that’s hurting coal. It’s the economy. Last year, for the first time, natural gas surpassed coal as the main source of the nation’s power, according to the US Department of Energy, generating 34 percent to coal’s 30 percent. In fact, demand for coal has fallen in all but two states (Nebraska and Alaska) over the last eight years. For Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, coal consumption has dropped by 75 percent or more in each state during that time.
“Clean coal,” often extolled as an environmentally friendly form of America’s favored fossil, involves expensive carbon-capture and sequestration technology that comes with heightened economic risks. The Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi, built by Southern Company, is years behind schedule and almost $5 billion over budget. Carbon pulled out by “clean coal” technology can be sold for reuse or disposed of — but it still needs to be trucked, piped, or stored in the ground. Some analysts fear that stored carbon could leak, or even cause earthquakes. And it’s noteworthy that the Southern Company is a utility funded by ratepayers, who shoulder the cost burden. In New England, for the most part, ratepayers don’t own power plants — and it’s unclear how attractive intricate clean coal technology would be to private investors.
Trump, as a businessman, should well understand the market forces at work. Natural gas prices are the lowest they’ve been since 1999, due in part to new technologies like fracking and redoubled energy conservation strategies in businesses and households. There’s also growing recognition that renewable sources like wind and solar are no longer just an environmentalist’s fever dream: they’re an innovative and growing part of many states’ energy portfolios.
The president could always ask Mike Pence. Pence’s home state of Indiana created a “clean energy portfolio standard,” in 2012, that gives that state’s utilities an incentive to use more renewable sources. By 2019, the program mandates that 7 percent of Indiana’s energy must come from renewables, and the percentage jumps to 10 percent in 2025. The list of clean energy sources allowed are a mouthwatering menu for any energy tech startup seeking to relocate to the Hoosier State: Solar, wind, and hydropower are a given, but energy can also come from agricultural waste, animal byproducts, algae, geothermal energy, or coal-bed methane.
In Massachusetts, studies are underway to find a beneficial use for the coal-fired Brayton Point in Somerset, which is expected to shut down in May. In Holyoke, the old Mt. Tom Generating Plant, along the Connecticut River, is being tranformed from a coal-fired plant to a state-of-the-art solar-panel farm.
If Trump is serious about restoring blue collar jobs, he might consider urging his own Interior Department to move forward on auctions to lease two promising offshore wind sites south of Martha’s Vineyard, in Buzzards Bay. Offshore wind is fast becoming part of energy portfolios elsewhere. Statoil Wind recently won an offshore lease off New York with a $42 million bid. The two sites off the Vineyard are part of hundreds of thousands of acres made available for commercial leasing by former governor Deval Patrick and then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, an area dubbed the “Saudi Arabia” of wind. Offshore wind, while not a complete energy source for Massachusetts, would generate jobs for pile drivers, tugboat operators, and commercial divers. The kinds of jobs that have nothing to do with coal, but underpin America’s energy future — jobs that President Trump could honestly tout at his next rally.