Stephen Lacey: The headwinds for coal are strong and coming from every direction. Since 2010, more than 250 coal plants in America have been shuttered or are set to close. Meanwhile, in the most energy-hungry regions of the world, thousands of megawatts of new coal plants have been halted. This week, we're covering coal from a bunch of different angles. First, the steady drumbeat of plant closures in the US. What has caused them, and what comes next? We'll talk about the just-announced closure of the biggest coal plant in the West, and how it encompasses all the complicated factors around the transition away from coal. Then, a clean coal redux. As billions of dollars in cost overruns mount at America's first CCS plant, the coal industry looks to the White House for more support. And finally, the international picture. Coal is still the dominant source of generation around the world, but new build-outs are slowing in key countries. Can we say that peak coal has arrived yet?
From Boston, welcome. In Washington, DC, is my regular co-host, Katherine Hamilton. She's a partner at 38 North Solutions. Hello, Katherine.
Katherine Hamilton: Hi. How are you doing today, Stephen, on this kind of cold day?
Stephen Lacey: It's not the end of winter yet. Jigar is not with us this week. He's currently wandering around the facilities of BYD, I think, getting the lowdown on Chinese EV manufacturing. But our guest co-host is no stranger to podcasting, and certainly no stranger to the subject at hand. Mary Anne Hitt is the director of the Beyond Coal campaign at the Sierra Club, and she's also the co-host of a newish podcast on climate change called No Place Like Home, so if you're interested in the personal stories behind climate science, activism, and climate impacts, I highly recommend it. Mary Anne, welcome. She joins us from West Virginia. How are you?
Mary Anne Hitt: It is such a pleasure to be with you. I have been a listener and a fan for a long time, and as you mention, I'm a podcaster myself, and an energy nerd as well, so I'll do my best to fill Jigar's shoes here and bring you the view from West Virginia.
Stephen Lacey: Well, you're the perfect fit for the podcast. We're so thrilled to have you here, and I'd like to actually just start off with some of your background, because you're from Tennessee, you live in West Virginia, you know coal country really well. How did you get into thinking about the transition beyond coal, and working within coal communities themselves?
Mary Anne Hitt: I started working on coal when I was the Executive Director of a group called Appalachian Voices, and at that time, I had grown up in the Smoky Mountains, I love Appalachia, my daughter is an 11th-generation West Virginian through my husband's side of the family, and so I started doing this work to stop this devastating form of coal mining called mountaintop removal, and that connected me to the power plants that were demanding all that coal. Initially, within the Sierra Club, we were working to stop a new wave of 200 coal plants that were on the drawing board during the Bush years, and had a lot of success there. 184 of those were stopped by a really, really remarkable grassroots network of community leaders, and that then took us to all of the existing plants, and trying to figure out a way to power this country without creating all the air pollution and climate problems and water pollution problems that come from coal, and not to mention all the public health problems.
Stephen Lacey: Can you explain exactly what you all do at the Beyond Coal campaign? Because there are a lot of people, maybe a good number of our listeners, from the energy industry who kind of see Sierra Club as waging this blind war against coal, without a lot of thought to consequences to energy markets or communities who rely on coal. And as you said, you've been working in these communities for a long time, you understand them, and it's really complex. The campaign focuses just as much on the clean stuff and the transition as it does on shutting down the dirty stuff. So how would you describe your mission and strategy?
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, there are millions of Americans who have been on the receiving end of unchecked pollution from power plants and coal mines for a long time, whether that's people downriver from coal ash spills; a mom of a child with asthma living next to a coal plant in a community; folks in Appalachia who have higher rates of birth defects, cancer, other health problems because they live next to mountaintop removal coal mines. And so, really, the Beyond Coal campaign is a network and a movement of all of those folks who have found ways, over a decade-plus of working together, to actually get into the venues where decisions are being made about how we make electricity — utility commissions, city councils, state legislatures — and make sure those voices are heard, and the voices of those folks feeling the brunt of the pollution are in the room.
And then also that we're bringing the very best, most cutting-edge economic information about renewable energy and energy efficiency, because oftentimes, the utilities and the operators of the coal plants aren't putting that information forward to regulators, and are instead seeking to prop up coal plants, often at the expense of the customers who are paying for the electricity. So we're really representing the public interest of both people paying electric bills and people who are at the receiving end of the pollution.
Katherine Hamilton: So, Mary Anne, I was watching on MSNBC, Chris Hayes had a town hall in West Virginia. They were all Trump voters, essentially, at this town hall, and one of the speakers is a coal miner, and he said, "All I care about is I want a good job, and I want good health care." So as these plants are shutting down, what can the campaign do to show that there are other jobs? Or is there even some kind of move to replace those jobs? Jigar has come on the show and said they all should just get a bus ticket out of West Virginia. Well, that's probably not what those people want to do. So what are you doing to kind of make up for the loss of jobs?
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, first of all, thank you, Katherine. I have heard you speak up for the beautiful mountains of West Virginia, and why people may not want to get a bus ticket and head on out, so thank you very much for that. I would separate this into two pieces. The first are the power plants. In a lot of these cases, the vast majority, there's a 10-, 15-, even 20-year window between the announced retirement of the plant and the actual retirement, and in that time, the workers in the plant either retire themselves or are given other jobs in these very large utilities. It's not always the case, but it is predominantly the case.
But the second piece is a lot tougher, and it's in coal-mining states and communities like West Virginia, where I live. What really struck me about the Bernie Sanders town hall, that I think we have far too little of here in coal states, was the honesty and the compassion. Right now, what we hear from our political leaders in coal-mining states is that it's all going to come back as soon as these pesky environmental regulations are swept out of the way, and there's no acknowledgment of the market forces, there's no acknowledgment of the grassroots advocacy of communities who want clean energy to provide their power. Unfortunately, we don't have the kind of leadership that we need to say, "Things are changing, the world is changing. Let's figure out a plan to diversify our economy and take advantage of the other great assets we have here, like our art and our culture and our music and our natural beauty."
We aren't having the kind of honest conversation that you saw with Bernie Sanders, unfortunately, with our own political leaders, but if and when we can start having that conversation, let's get federal resources into the region, let's provide workforce training and economic diversification. We've got incredible assets here in the region to build on if we have the resources and the leadership.
Stephen Lacey: So, how are you trying to leverage those resources in your campaign? And whose responsibility is this? Is it the equal responsibility of folks like you, who are waging a pretty aggressive legal battle? Is it the states and local leaders, or is it the federal government that needs to come in and say, "We need to develop much better worker training programs"? How should that break down, in your eyes?
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, I feel like it's the responsibility of all Americans. You know, we all stand on the shoulders of Appalachian coal miners who made great sacrifices to power the Industrial Revolution, and not just by sacrificing their own health and safety, but our own mountains, and our own natural resources and natural capital of one of the most beautiful and diverse temperate forest ecosystems on the planet. And so all of America has benefited from the sacrifices of coal communities, and I think we should be making a national investment in making those places whole, whether it's communities around power plants or around coal mines. And, you know, we can do this. As Bernie Sanders said in the town hall with Chris Hayes, we're the wealthiest community in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. We have transitioned from the horse and the buggy to the car, and we can do this without leaving people behind, and that's what we need to do, I think, as a nation.
Stephen Lacey: Can we just talk about coal's current status here in the US? It's a bit of a mixed picture because of these market dynamics and seasonal variability. The trend is generally downward, though. Coal production, actual mining, which we've been talking about, which impacts these communities directly, peaked around 2008. Last year, for the first time, later in the year, natural gas outpaced coal in terms of generation. That may switch back, depending on where natural gas prices go. EIA, I think, expects coal generation to creep back up as natural gas prices also kind of creep. But just last week, analysts at the credit rating agency Moody's said that 56 gigawatts of coal plants are now facing pretty steeply eroding economics, or maybe even complete shutdowns, because of just cheap wind alone. And as I mentioned up front, 251 coal plants have closed, or are set to close, since you started the Beyond Coal campaign. So what does this all amount to? Despite a lot of these challenges, coal is virtually tied with gas as the second-biggest generation source in the US. What can we say about coal's place in America's energy mix today?
Mary Anne Hitt: The short summary I would give is it's in a structural decline. We were getting 50 percent of our electricity from coal about a decade ago; that is now down to a record low in recorded history of about a third of our electricity. And you will see it kind of bounce up and down over the period of months, just depending on all kinds of market forces, and weather, and supply and demand, but the long-term trend is down, and it isn't turning around for a couple of reasons. One, because we aren't building any new coal plants in this country. As I mentioned earlier, a wave of them proposed back in the Bush years, almost all of those were stopped. The existing plants aren't getting any younger, and many of them are out of compliance with modern health and safety standards, so they still don't have some basic pollution-control device on them like a scrubber, and so they are causing serious health problems, and are, at some point, going to have to reckon with those. That's a lot of what our advocacy has focused on.
But then there's this new, as you mentioned, this new development, which is having trouble competing not just with natural gas, but increasingly wind, and in some places, even solar energy. We have seen, even since the election, a wave of these coal plants that have either announced retirement or have announced they are teetering on the edge of retirement, and it's because they cannot sell their power anymore at a competitive price. You know, I love The Energy Gang, and I love your podcasts and all your listeners, but I think sometimes, the one piece of that equation that y'all miss is the role of advocacy, because even when it comes to the economics, you still have to have public-interest advocates bringing those compelling economics into the room, because what the utilities and the coal plant operators are often doing is trying to get bailouts, so that their coal plants can be insulated from those market forces.
We've seen that a lot of times in Ohio, as a recent example, where the utilities are trying to get 10- and 15-year locked-in rates for their power plants, so that they can weather these uncharted economic waters, and as advocates, we have to be there in the room, saying, "Actually, there's a better deal for the customers and the rate payers, and it's renewable energy, and it's energy efficiency."
Katherine Hamilton: Yes, local advocacy sounds really important, because states have been doing some crazy things to try to save these industries that are really backward-looking and will actually hurt their consumer base. But how about on the federal side? I mean, Trump has promised he's going to bring these jobs back. So, does he have a pathway to do that at all?
Mary Anne Hitt: Frankly, I don't see a pathway for Trump to bring back coal, for the reasons that I mentioned, that we just don't see, and there's no new source of demand in sight that's popping up. We're not building new coal plants here. There was just a big report out, the Boom and Bust report out this week that lots of folks have reported on, that global coal demand is on a downward trend as well. But what I do worry about is that Trump will roll back these different environmental standards and just leave more pollution behind, so the Stream Protection Rule, which was really more about reclamation around streams, and just taking a little bit better care of streams during coal mining.
By getting rid of that, by getting rid of other air and water standards, it isn't going to bring coal back to any measure, because the economics and the grassroots pressure isn't going to go away, but it could very well mean that people who live near coal plants and coal mines have less recourse if they have health problems, or if their property value is harmed. So it could mean no real change for the coal industry, but very real problems for regular folks living near power plants. And, you know, ultimately just the chipping away of the Clean Air and the Clean Water Act, which is important to us all.
Stephen Lacey: There are a few points here that are good for debate and discussion. You said that you think we kind of underplay the role of environmentalists in bringing forward the economic case of renewables on the local level. You know, I will say I agree with you on that. I think I first met you around 2012, when I went in to chat with you as a reporter at Climate Progress to talk about what you guys were up to at the Beyond Coal campaign, and I kind of assumed that it was just a one-dimensional legal battle to shut down coal plants, and then it became pretty clear to me that there was a lot of these local economic development efforts, and a lot of attempts to try to get people to think about filling the gap with renewable energy projects, and making a clear case for the economics. And gosh, at that time, the economics were so different than they are today, but that conversation's a lot easier.
I will say, though, that the impacts of why these coal plants are shutting down, they're wide-ranging, and one of the biggest impact that everyone points to is natural gas prices. And so, early on the campaign, the Sierra Club got blowback from its members for taking money from the natural gas industry to support this effort, and has since then responded to its members and said that "we don't believe that natural gas is the solution." But I would argue, and many others would argue, that clearly, natural gas played an outsize role in forcing many of these plants to shut down, and I'm just curious what your view is on its role in transitioning away from coal.
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, this wave of very cheap natural gas has obviously been a big factor in upending life and business as usual in the electric sector, and we are all swimming in that water together as advocates in the industry, and utilities and everybody else. At the Sierra Club, we are pushing now to leapfrog over natural gas as fast as we can. Especially with Trump in the White House, with what we need to do to hit our Paris target, with what we need to do to hit the targets of the Clean Power Plan, just replacing all the coal with natural gas is not going to get us to our climate targets. And then, obviously, you have all of the pollution, water pollution problems, and the local impacts of natural gas development that we and our members are very worried about.
So, you know, having natural gas come into the market has definitely been a big factor in pushing out coal, and I wouldn't want to sugarcoat that or pretend otherwise. And at the same time, as advocates, what we are doing in this new and ever-changing world is to figure out, okay, how do we leapfrog over gas as fast as we can? We actually just released a report, and there are over 200 new natural gas plants on the drawing board around the country, and if we lock in all of that natural gas capacity, not only is it a fossil fuel, but it's also that investment we would rather see in wind and solar and energy efficiency. So we're really trying to use all of our experience and our network of advocates to make sure that, as much as we can, we're driving investment into renewable energy and away from any fossil fuel.
Katherine Hamilton: And I'm sure it does not help when Congress is using the Congressional Review Act to try to roll back things like methane emission rules, and other environmental protections that do make it harder for natural gas.
Mary Anne Hitt: There's no doubt about it, the coal and gas industries have lots of friends in high places these days, and they're making our job harder, and at the same time, it's a new day when it comes to the economics of renewable energy, and from the local jobs and the economic opportunity that are coming from renewable energy, which is by far and away one of the biggest growth sectors in the economy, as you know. All the local opportunities to create energy without pollution, it's kind of a win-win-win. And, you know, again, I live in West Virginia. People are very worried here about gas pipelines and about fracking in our state, and it's a lot of the same people who have dealt with coal pollution in their water and in their back yards for a very long time, who are now feeling like they've hopped out of the frying pan into the fire, and don't want to just trade one fossil fuel boss for another, but would really like to move on. And so that's definitely where we are pushing.
Katherine Hamilton: Well, it's also you're in a better place with technology too, so the cost of energy storage has greatly declined, and companies like AES, that will be closing two of its subsidiary coal plants in Ohio, is also a huge investor in energy storage, and uses the line all the time that energy storage can replace any kind of...plants. So technology has also been coming down in cost, so that you actually have solutions that you can provide that are flexible, and can provide the same or better service than traditional power plants.
Stephen Lacey: I want to talk about one project that I think brings together all the complications of this transition away from coal. It's the Navajo Generation Station. This is this 2,200-megawatt coal plant on the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona. It's the biggest coal plant in the western US, if I'm not mistaken. It's come under pressure from environmental groups for a long time for its severe pollution problems, it's now under financial pressure from natural gas, but at the same time, it accounts for hundreds of jobs for the Navajo and Hopi people, and accounts for, according to a press report that I read, a third of the Navajo's operating budget. So closing this plant would be a public health win, but it's economically a hit.
And so the Navajo are now lobbying Trump, they're asking the feds to do anything they can to keep the plant going. They're saying publicly to the White House, "You came in here with a promise to save coal. This is your single best opportunity." So there's a lot going on here, and I know you've also been thinking about how to bring solar into the region to make up for lost jobs. So how do all these factors complicate closure of a plant this big?
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, as you mentioned, this really is kind of a microcosm of the bigger forces at work. All of the owners and operators of this plant have tried to sell three-and-a-half-cent power into a two-cent market, and a plant that I think people had expected to operate for decades — including the Navajo Nation — is now suddenly, perhaps, going to close as early as 2019, if not sooner. And so, as you would expect, the folks who are most economically in the crosshairs of that are looking for some help and support.
There are actually a lot of other similar cases around the country right now, where there are coal plants that are suddenly looking out, even 12 months, and realizing that no one wants to buy the power at the rate they're selling it when there are so many cheaper alternatives out there, and that is where the need for an honest and compassionate conversation about a transition, and leadership around that transition, is so desperately needed. And I think it's even more so the case around the Navajo Generating Station, where you not only have a lot of employment and ownership of the plant by the Navajo and Hopi Nations, there are still a lot of people on those reservations without electricity. There are still a lot of folks on those reservations without access to clean water. This power plant is a big user of water, and what happens to the water rights is a big open question.
As much as we, again, as Americans have benefited from the power from this power plant, and have benefited from the sacrifice of folks who work there, and who gave up their clean air and their clean water, I think we owe a debt, and I think we need the leadership around the transition to make sure folks are made whole. But just walking away is definitely not what the Sierra Club would ever advocate, and not what we think is the right solution, and that is where that leadership is so, so important and so needed.
Stephen Lacey: And this is, as you said, the perfect example of how the structural changes in the electricity market are making these plants less competitive, and so the conversation is completely different from a few years ago for this massive coal plant, and I know that some of the utility partners have, over the last year or two, divested from the plant because it's just such a challenging plant to make money from. So, a really powerful example of how the situation has reversed. So, do the Navajo see you as a partner, or as a threat?
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, I think, as is the case with any major stakeholder, it's more nuanced than that. There are Native leaders on the Navajo and the Hopi reservation who are calling for a transition, who are calling for addressing these longstanding energy access issues, and water pollution and air pollution issues, and I'm sure that there are plenty of folks who are not fans of the Sierra Club there, but I think there are plenty of others who see the writing on the wall, and are ready for some leadership and some compassion around a transition. I mean, again, here in West Virginia, where I live, where I'm sure there's plenty of folks who are not fans of the Sierra Club, we also are far more familiar with the impacts of coal and coal pollution than most Americans. And so, when you're living close to these issues, while, again, you may not always be fans of the environmental advocates, you also are intimately familiar with the problems that are tied to coal, and just how urgent the need is for real thought and leadership around a transition, and not just finger-pointing.
Katherine Hamilton: Yeah, it sounds like with the Navajo plant, that there are going to be four colleges in the region that are coming in together to build a higher-education center for training and education, and it sounds like that's a big need throughout Appalachia as well, is trying to make sure that we bring up the STEM skills of the folks in the area, so that when kids are done with school, they're actually able to get good jobs.
Stephen Lacey: It would seem to me that all the structural economic changes that are underway are starting to make your job easier, because you've been talking about this for eight years now — you've had a lot of wins, I don't want to undersell how hard you've been working — but now, all of a sudden, people are talking about massive worker retraining programs, the clean energy revolution that is now putting pressure on traditional fossil fuels. So the market forces that are at play are contributing to the narrative that you've been pushing for a number of years. How do you ride that, I guess is my question.
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, and I touched before on, I think, sort of underappreciating, sometimes, the value of advocacy. And just as an anecdote here, back in 2010-2011, all of the analysts — you know, Moody's, Goldman Sachs, BNEF, et cetera, SNL — were predicting something in the range of 10 percent of the coal plants in the United States having announced to retire by now, and the Sierra Club was predicting 30 percent, because we were building in the role of advocacy into our model, which we build a predictive model of every coal plant and boiler in the United States, and sort of what we thought their prospects were. So, five years ago, folks were saying 10 percent, we said 30 percent, and we were right. Over 30 percent, now, of the coal generation in the US announced to retire.
What the experts are projecting today for coal retirements out to 2030 is actually what's already been announced through the advocacy and work that we have been doing, and what we've been tracking. What we do in this moment, and how we move forward, there's two things. One, I think, again, because of advocacy, we're going to move a lot farther than most of the analysts are predicting in terms of coal retirements and ramping up renewable energy. Secondly, it's almost like a new campaign for us, because in prior years, all of our arguments were around public health and climate change, and the need for these plants to be responsible and no longer cause tens of thousands of asthma attacks and heart attacks every year, but we now have the economics on our side, and we never had that before.
I think, as I mentioned before, sometimes it is up to advocates to bring the economics of clean energy into these decision-making venues with utility commissions, city councils, state legislatures, and say, "Not only is this power plant causing asthma attacks and heart attacks, but there's a cheaper alternative out there, and it's ready to go today, and you can save money for folks here with renewable energy." Being able to make that economic argument is a whole new ball game for us, and is going to be a defining element of the work that we're doing going forward.
Stephen Lacey: We should get on to the second segment here, but I do have to ask you about the Clean Power Plan. You know, given what Scott Pruitt and the White House plan to do to dismantle climate regulations and environmental regulations, what role are the environmental groups going to play in bringing legal firepower to that battle?
Mary Anne Hitt: So, right now, as we are recording Thursday afternoon, our legal director, Pat Gallagher, is testifying in Congress around the confirmation for Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch, and someone we see as a very alarming choice for citizens' abilities to enforce our clean air and clean water standards. So that's one small example of the incredible might that the environmental community is bringing to defend our environment. I'm in the middle of our federal work to defend against all of these attacks, and I have never seen the environmental community so coordinated and so focused as I do now, and we do have many brilliant attorneys, we have new members and supporters coming in, because people are really alarmed about the threats we're facing. And so, as hard as it is — and I know Katherine knows this — to see the news about rollbacks to this program or that regulation coming day by day, one thing that does give me a great amount of solace and hope is the sophistication and the determination and the breadth of the defensive effort that we're able to mount.
Stephen Lacey: Let's move on to clean coal. America's flagship clean coal project, the Kemper County Power Plant, is facing yet more delays. Southern Company said this month it's going to push out the opening by a month or more, sending the plant more than $5 billion over budget. According to a recent filing, Southern says it will need to rate-base more than $25 million per month until it finally starts generating electricity at the plant. Think about that. $25 million per month, I think the numbers could rise to $35 million per month, rate-based until the plant opens up. For a deeper discussion on everything that went wrong with Kemper, go back to our episode in July of last year. We walked through the whole debacle.
Now, the industry, buoyed by Trump's win, is lining up and asking for more federal subsidies to support additional clean coal projects. In a letter this month, coal associations and companies asked the White House to protect the Office of Fossil Energy from massive budget cuts in order to support R&D and new generations of coal technology, and I believe that that was one of the offices that did not get cut. So is clean coal going to make a resurgence — at least a public relations resurgence — or are utilities going to stay clear for economic reasons? Katherine, do you have any hope for clean coal at the commercial scale?
Katherine Hamilton: All you have to do is talk to Louie Miller of the Sierra Club down in Mississippi to hear what he has to say, because he's great about saying "you just can't make this stuff up." And the plant that they overspent by billions and billions of dollars is never going to burn coal. It's burning gas. That technology is not ready, It seems like it's one of those zombie technologies that somehow just keeps lurking in the background, but it never actually does anything except eat money. It would be great if we could come up with some new technology that could actually deal with emissions and eat up emissions, but building more plants to burn coal in hopes of eating those emissions just doesn't seem, in a number of ways, to make any sense.
Stephen Lacey: I have made it very clear that in order to deeply decarbonize, I'm very supportive of R&D efforts across the spectrum, and that means figuring out ways to clean up fossil fuels. So actually, when you look at this letter from the coal industry, I would say that calling for government funding, to maintain government funding for R&D for CCS, seems super reasonable to me. But then, when you look at how this is going to get deployed in the market, and Southern Company's experience with the Kemper Plant debacle, they're $5 billion over budget. It's a $7 billion project; they initially said it was going to cost a couple of billion dollars. I just don't see any utilities really wanting to touch this. This is now in the nuclear camp, it's in the coal camp, the conventional coal camp.
I mean, without massive government support and additional loan guarantees, I just do not see how this succeeds, even if the Trump administration really wanted to do something. I mean, maybe they could restructure some loan guarantees and support a few projects, but my guess is, even with some of that government support, government financial support directly for projects, that there probably won't be many utilities who actually want to touch this. Natural gas and renewables are far easier and more economic to deploy.
Mary Anne Hitt: Yeah, I think if you see a lot of money going into research for carbon capture from coal plants, it's more of a testament to the political clout of the coal industry than anything else, especially when you have so much opportunity, just about every part of the country, around deploying more wind and solar. And, you know, before we had wind and solar that were so competitive, the economic argument for having coal, capturing its carbon, was a different one, I think. I think it's in a different world now, when there are so many alternatives.
One of my mentors in the West Virginia coal fields, Judy Bonds, used to always say that even if you could get marshmallows to come out of the smokestacks, it still wouldn't solve all of the other problems that come from mining and burning coal. So, you know, we can't forget the blown-up mountains, and we can't forget the other parts of the pollution from coal's life cycle, but in a day when you have some regions of the country almost awash in wind and solar, with huge more opportunity to absorb more of it on the grid, it's hard to make the case that this is a smart investment.
Stephen Lacey: So you can have R&D no matter what, but if you're advocating for commercial deployment of CCS, the Trump administration's current policies make it less likely that the industry will want to deploy these projects. Politically, you just can't have both. So if you put policies in place for carbon constraints, then maybe, in certain areas, with the right government support, CCS makes sense. If you dismantle them and send the exact opposite signal, CCS looks a lot less attractive. I think what the coal industry is arguing is just R&D here, but if you truly want to get commercial deployment of carbon capture technologies, the way the Trump administration is going about it makes it far less likely that anyone's going to invest in this, because there's no price on carbon, there's no signal in the market, no policy signal whatsoever that environmental performance is important.
Moving on. If the "King Coal" moniker still stands, it's in the global context. Around the world, developing countries have relied primarily on coal to feed their growing need for energy. But we appear to be witnessing a reversal. According to a global coal plant tracker from CoalSwarm, the number of coal plants in the pre-construction phase fell by half from 2016 to 2017. New construction fell by 62 percent over the same period. And in the two biggest coal-consuming countries, China and India, construction of coal plants is down by a fifth. So, in fact, just this week, Beijing switched off its final coal plant within the city limits. It is, however, still getting coal electricity from plants outside the city, but a telling milestone, and China has frozen a ton of coal projects.
Mary Anne, the Sierra Club actually participated in the authorship of this recent report on coal construction activity globally. Since this turnaround is relatively new, I know you've been talking to a few people in your office about the global situation. Since this turnaround is relatively new, do you get the sense that this is a trend yet? Can we say that we've reached peak coal, or we're nearing peak coal globally? What would you conclude from this?
Mary Anne Hitt: I do think the folks on our team feel that we are at some sort of tipping point, or at some turnaround point, and for a host of reasons that are outlined in this great Boom and Bust report, including everything that's happening in China. I found one of the most interesting tidbits from the report was that 55 gigawatts of coal plants already under construction in China have been halted midway through, which is almost, I think, kind of unthinkable and unheard of. And similarly, in India, the coal plants that they have been building are already struggling, and there does not seem to be appetite to keep going.
And when you're in my position as a domestic advocate, that is oftentimes the first response out of people's mouths, is, "Well, even if we reduce our coal use here, what about China and India? What about the rest of the world? If they just keep going, doesn't that make our efforts futile?" And I think this report clearly demonstrates that that is not the case, and whether it's because of local air pollution concerns, whether it's because the markets can't absorb the power, or whether it's because of the fact that the whole world is still going to move forward on tackling climate change — which is already hitting many of these countries very hard — it does appear that we have reached some kind of turnaround.
Katherine Hamilton: Yeah, it seems that China is stepping up in a number of ways. I was just reading that a bunch of property developers there have started a real-estate green supply-chain initiative, where they're looking at all the raw materials, and what are the supply-chain practices in cement, steel, and iron. China is trying to fill a void that they think the US may be creating if we slow down on our own climate initiatives.
Stephen Lacey: There's a couple of things happening here. One is, in India, there was this overbuild of capacity, and they just don't need to build out any new plants for many years, and now, in new tenders, new solar tenders, we're starting to see photovoltaic projects beating out coal projects. So there's a competitiveness issue, and there's an overbuild issue. China has been responding directly to protests from people. This is one of the reasons why they've put a halt on so many coal plants, because there's actually boots-on-the-ground activism. Starting in 2011, 2012, we started to see protests and riots in the street about coal plants that were forcing people out of their homes, causing people to get really sick, and that direct government pressure caused this top-down halting of coal plants.
And on top of that, now you have these two countries, post-Paris, saying, "It's possible to shift away from coal." They already have these plans to put a halt on coal plants in place, and it makes them a lot more willing to get to the table and say, "We think we can hit some of these voluntary targets." It's all this positive iterative cycle that kind of started in 2012, 2013, and I don't know that we can yet say we've hit peak coal, but the factors are certainly there, and you could make a very clear case that we are on that path, or that we already have hit peak coal.
Katherine Hamilton: You know, one thing I would mention, Stephen, that got some press was at the World Economic Forum, and I was actually sitting in the front row during this big debate. The prime minister of Bangladesh really got into a discussion with Al Gore about their Rampal coal plant that they want to build. Now, Bangladesh being one of the countries that is most impacted by climate change, and this coal plant would go right near the largest mangrove forest in the world. You know, there is this big stressor that she feels on climate change mitigation versus economic development. She wants to develop her economy for her people, and there's nothing that she thinks should stand in her way of that. And Al Gore was just saying, "You don't need to build this plant, we can do this in other ways."
But I think that there are countries that are feeling that pinch, where they want electricity, and coal for them has been easy, although this still seems like a real reach, because they're going to have to import all this coal. So that's just another thing that we need to think about, is these countries really do want to have economic development.
Stephen Lacey: This offers some lessons for the US. Clearly, China is, I think, one of the most obvious examples, because these demonstrations in the street directly forced the government -- and, quite frankly, embarrassing stories internationally about how bad pollution had gotten -- to make changes and just put a halt on coal plants. And because of how obvious and how directly the pollution was hurting people, it made it easier to make these sweeping decisions. And we're at a point in the US where there are clearly serious public-health impacts and local environmental problems, but it's not the same, it's not as visible as it was in the 1970s and the 1980s when the EPA was created and the Clean Air Act was passed. It makes it harder nationally, on a political level, to sell some of these environmental issues, and therefore makes people more willing to accept the fact that they think the Environmental Protection Agency is way overstepping its authority, and sets in motion this public narrative that the government is doing far too much on environmental protection.
So, Mary Anne, I'd love for you to comment on that. What does the visibility of pollution do to make the case for making changes to regulations, for example? What can we learn from the China example, where there has been this massive, sweeping change in the last couple of years, simply because of how visible the pollution is?
Mary Anne Hitt: Well, on a different scale here in the US, I would argue that something similar has been happening. When you look at the 251 coal plants that have announced retirement in the United States, the vast majority of those had some very active local grassroots campaign that was mainly driven by local concerns about air pollution or water pollution — so, kids with asthma, people with arsenic and lead and mercury in their drinking water — and it may not be quite the gripping photos you see in the front page of the New York Times of Beijing air that you can't see across the street, but when folks realize that their child's asthma levels in the River Rouge neighborhood outside of Detroit are much higher than anyone else in the state of Michigan, and they live next to two coal plants without scrubbers, and everyone around them has asthma, it doesn't take a lot of organizing to get people involved in working to clean up that pollution in their community.
And here in the US, the decisions about how we make electricity are primarily not made in Washington; they're made at the state and city level, and again, utility commissions, city councils, et cetera. So here in the US, I think we've had our own version of that; it just has maybe been a little more under the radar. Our air is cleaner, and our water are cleaner than they used to be, and we may take some of that for granted, but I also think that now that specific EPA programs, specific EPA initiatives are on the chopping block for the Great Lakes or the Chesapeake Bay, or cleaning up Superfund sites, or whatever it may be, that suddenly, people are maybe realizing they can't take that for granted so much. And the very good local work the EPA does is, I think, kind of getting a new revival of interest now that people realize it may not be something they can take for granted without a fight.
Stephen Lacey: Well, it's that time of the show when we tell our listeners something they may not know, and, Mary Anne, as our guest host this week, you get to start first.
Mary Anne Hitt: All right, well, I know a few episodes back, Katherine mentioned my friend Dan Conant, who runs the group Solar Holler, which is helping to train people from coal communities to become solar installers, so I have an update from them. They have 20 apprentices in their training program, folks from coal communities learning to become solar workers, and they are on track to build one megawatt of solar in coal communities this year. There was just an article in the Sunday Guardian about how much harder it is to go solar in West Virginia because of our policies, and about Solar Holler and the work they're doing to break down those barriers, so I'd love to give them another shout-out.
Katherine Hamilton: That's awesome. Thanks so much for the update.
Stephen Lacey: Katherine, how about you?
Katherine Hamilton: Yeah, so I also have a very upbeat "what you may not know," which is a report that the National Institute of Building Sciences and Green Sports Alliance put together under the aegis of the Department of Energy, called "Taking the Field: Advancing Energy and Water Efficiency in Sports Venues." It's a great report on what teams, pro and collegiate teams, are doing to promote energy efficiency and water efficiency at their arenas and other venues. 68 pro teams have efficiency programs, 146 collegiate teams have programs. There are 80 LEED-certified sports venues, and they have saved $22.7 billion in revenue, which is huge. This is just amazing. These are voluntary programs, just like Energy Star. These are programs that people feel like they need to come together on to make their venues more comfortable, and more sustainable and more cost-effective.
Stephen Lacey: I wonder if there's any correlation between bracket performance — performance in March Madness — and energy efficiency.
Katherine Hamilton: Well, I'd be willing to put money on it.
Mary Anne Hitt: We might need a whole new bracket.
Stephen Lacey: That's one way to pick your choices. I should have mentioned this way back at the beginning of the month, but I kept forgetting. This month is a campaign started by National Public Radio to get people to listen to podcasts. It's called #trypod, and they've started a hashtag on Twitter and on Instagram, and it's a way for you to make recommendations for podcasts that you listen to, to get people — your friends, your families, your colleagues, anybody, who maybe don't listen to podcasts, or don't listen to the podcasts that you listen to — to get them to give them a try. Mary Anne Hitt's podcasts. You know, she co-hosts this show No Place Like Home. You can get it also anywhere else you get podcasts — it's on SoundCloud and iTunes and so forth — and if you're really interested in climate change issues and the personal stories behind dealing with climate change, you should check it out. So you can listen to that, and maybe recommend it through #trypod.
One non-energy podcast that I've been listening to recently is called Containers. It's this series from Alexis Madrigal, who's the Editor at Large at Fusion. He's doing this podcast about the shipping container industry, and what it says about how the global economy works. I think it's like a six-part series. Highly recommend it, it's really good. I love to see people who have just, like, never worked in audio come into the podcasting game and find new ways to tell stories, and I just think that if you love podcasts, you should use that hashtag, promote our show, promote No Place Like Home, promote whatever show you are listening to.
So thank you for joining us. We love your support. We want to thank KACO New Energy for supporting this podcast. Thank you to Mary Anne Hitt, the director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, for joining us. With Mary Anne Hitt and Katherine Hamilton, I'm Stephen Lacey, and this is The Energy Gang, a production of greentechmedia.com. We will catch you next week.