Green Swan

Whatever the phenomenon is called, the broad effect of the slowdown in the face of the current pandemic demonstrates a version of the combined efforts needed to address climate change:

The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show, a transformation partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic, with profound implications in the fight against climate change.

It is a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago, when coal was so dominant that it provided nearly half the nation’s electricity. And it comes despite the Trump administration’s three-year push to try to revive the ailing industry by weakening pollution rules on coal-burning power plants.

Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led electric utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40 percent in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80 percent. And the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.

Now the coronavirus outbreak is pushing coal producers into their deepest crisis yet.

As factories, retailers, restaurants and office buildings have shut down nationwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, demand for electricity has fallen sharply. And, because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.

We can acknowledge this without cheering or crowing. The U.S. has been dragging our feet on everything climate-related, saying through official policy and propagandistic news sources alike that any reductions in energy use or shifts in methods of production was impossible. Belittling every international effort to spite progress has made us the pariah state envisioned on and indeed championed by the right. And now it is happening anyway, through a combination of forces, some truly awful – others, like coal becoming obsolete, by their very own economic reality. A combination of tactics will be required to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, it would be great if one of them didn’t have to be a plague.

Image: painting by Anna Lubchik

Killing ‘carbon-capture’ Softly

You often hear – and I often write – about the unfashionable ‘need for more government regulation.’ Whether it is exotic financial instruments or greenhouse gas emissions, there is really no other entity who can handle reigning in our excesses at the scale of their own destructive impacts. The discussion is often set up as a public vs. big business, easy-to-understand (if not swallow) debate. But what gets less attention is how much big business needs sustained government policies, too.

American Electric Power, a huge utility company providing electricity mainly in the Midwest, is postponing or killing plans to build a full-scale “carbon capture” facility at its Mountaineer plant, in West Virginia.

Then Fallows hits on the implications:

Companies can’t do this without a sustained government policy. AEP, which is by no means a pinko organization — it is running acampaign now of complaint about burdensome EPA regulations — said the reason it was calling off the plans was governmental failure to set a clean energy/climate policy. By definition, any “cleaner” form of using coal will be more expensive than the current dirty approach, at least in the short run. This is true “by definition” because if the cleaner approaches were cheaper, the utilities would already have switched to them; because the cleanup technology is still in its developmental phase; and because in many places cleaner systems mean new capital investment.

You should also read his cover story on our future with coal, but this is an important addendum to it. It’s the other side of the story of companies needing to know what the regulations will be in order to plan. And whatever they are, companies will adapt. That means even if they hate it, which they will, they will still find a way to profit. Hint to EPA, Congress and the WH: go ahead and do something.