Joe Biden unveiled his latest plan for energy and the environment last week. The presumptive Democratic Party nominee says his plan would eliminate carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and spend $2 trillion to create a clean energy economy.
Essentially, Biden says his plan would bring about a 100% clean electricity standard in 15 years.
That’s about as realistic as President Donald Trump’s promise four years ago to put coal miners back to work. Their numbers did increase in the short term thanks to global market conditions for the kind of coal that’s used in making steel, but thermal coal — the kind used in power plants — is still in a slump. If you have trouble believing that, wait until CSX and Norfolk Southern release their financial reports later this month and announce the drop in coal shipments so far this year.
To be fair to Biden, if Trump has an energy plan beyond staying the course we’re on now, it would be nice to hear about it.
Going on the offensive against coal-burning power plants is picking the low-hanging fruit of environmental protection. Biden’s plan to eliminate coal-burning plants by 2035 merely takes advantage of a trend already existing and well-known in the industry: Coal is on its way out as a source of electricity.
As noted here before, the nation’s coal-fired fleet of power plants is aging and its owners will be deciding soon whether they are worth the investment of maintaining. Pollution control equipment is expensive. Legacy costs of dealing with waste products will become burdensome. And opposition to new coal power almost guarantees no new coal-burning generation will replace that going off line in the coming decades.
But that’s the beauty of unveiling a plan to eliminate coal power by 2035, 2050 or some point a decade or more in the future. A politician can take credit for a trend that started long before he or she had anything to do with it.
Remember the outrage a few years ago over mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia? That practice has diminished in recent years, but it wasn’t public outrage or long-range plans by politicians that can take the credit. Fracking can. Low-cost extraction of natural gas trapped in rock a mile or two beneath the surface put many coal plants out of business — that along with the ever-increasing cost of compliance with stricter emission standards. Gas beat coal in the energy market.
Then came subsidies and tax breaks for renewable energy, and coal was facing a battle it couldn’t win.
The power generation industry has invested billions of dollars the past decade or so in new gas-fired plants. Biden’s plan would effectively wipe out the value of those investments and the jobs they provide. That’s a detail that needs to be considered.
And seriously, does anyone think we can install enough solar panels or build enough windmills to run oil refineries, steel mills or hospitals? Maybe someday, but we don’t yet have the level of technology to accomplish that goal. If we could do that now, wouldn’t the process have been well underway or even finished by now?
It behooves both major-party candidates to give the nation a realistic plan to provide the nation with sufficient electricity in an environmentally sound way. Pie-in-the-sky plans that pander to the political base while ignoring the reality of energy needs and energy production are nothing but wastes of time and resources.
Given Appalachia’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and jobs, it would be nice to hear what those realistic plans would be.