Corner Column


Earlier this year, about 43 miles northeast of Mineola in Monticello, a coal-fired power plant was mothballed. Two additional coal-burning plants, one southeast of Corsicana and another northeast of Austin, also closed in 2018.

Across the country, utilities intend to pull 11.4 GW (gigawatts) of coal-fired power plant capacity offline in 2018. The nation’s power producers expect to eliminate another 19.8 GW of coal-fired capacity between 2018 and 2022. That’s a lot of electricity. A gigawatt equals 1 billion watts, enough, depending on peak usage, to power 300,000 to 725,000 Texas homes. Since 2010, nearly 40% of the nation’s coal-fired capacity has either been taken offline or slated for closure.

These facts alone point to coal’s inexorable decline in the United States. But why are the utilities turning away from coal? Multiple reasons exist, but two enormous ones lie right here in Texas.

Despite its fading position in the U.S. energy mix, coal continues to be the planet’s No. 1 source of climate-changing emissions. The Trump administration’s newly released National Climate Assessment reports that summer heat waves are growing in intensity and duration, wild fires are becoming more intense and extensive, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and droughts and floods are becoming more severe. In East Texas, climate change is expected to produce warmer, muggier summers; heavier downpours (but an overall drier soil profile); greater risk of forest fires; increased susceptibility to pine bark beetles and other pests; more mosquitoes and mosquito-borne illnesses; and additional heat-induced stress on cattle.

The EPA under the Obama administration was not coal-friendly. EPA policy classified carbon dioxide – which, among other compounds, is released in abundance with the burning of coal – as an air pollutant. In the air quality arena, that policy vaulted coal from “juvenile delinquent” to “super villain” status, and the electrical power industry now faced a gauntlet of expensive new regulations. Many of those regulations, however, were rolled back by the Trump administration, which is decidedly more amenable to coal.

Still, even with a rosier political and regulatory environment, coal production continues to ebb, and job formation registers barely a blip. That’s because the forces still arrayed against coal are as formidable as the EPA and just as smitten with the color green.

Most of the leading rivals to coal come from Texas with names like XTO Energy Inc., Chevron and Devon Energy Production. The natural gas industry elbowed past coal years ago and now powers half the state’s electricity. The gas and oil industry employs more than 369,000 people and pays wages and salaries totaling more than $44 billion in Texas, dwarfing coal’s economic footprint here.

In its beat down of coal, natural gas is joined by an unseen co-conspirator that loves wide open spaces and dispenses energy for free. Companies like TXU Energies, Cielo Wind Power and the Roscoe Wind Farm capture that energy, transform it, and sell it to the grid. With 18.4% of the state’s power generation capacity, wind is challenging coal (19.5%) for the No. 2 spot. Companies have harnessed the winds of West Texas and built transmission lines to move energy from remote regions to population centers. Refined technology and falling costs are making wind power attractive to investors. In 2016, the fledgling industry created 23,000 jobs with total capital investment of $38 billion. The second fastest growing job field in the United States is wind energy technician.

By far, Texas leads the nation in the production of natural gas and wind energy. (Only five nations in the world produce more wind energy than Texas). Almost single-handedly the state is thwarting coal’s reemergence.

I empathize with the men and women who lost jobs at the power plant in Monticello, as well as those in coal country who’ve seen a way of life erased. But in America, coal will never again reign supreme. New powers lord over the energy landscape, and their kingdoms are here in Texas.

(Sources: Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, S&P Global Market Intelligence, U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency.


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