All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Major Coal Plant Closures Show How Coal Industry Is Dying Faster Than Expected

Several of the Largest Coal Plants in the United States to Close in 2019

Coal plant closings are increasing in the United States, but this year will see some of the country’s heaviest emitters of greenhouse gases shut down as alternative sources like renewables continue to drop in price relative to coal.
Major Coal Plant Closures Show How Coal Industry Is Dying Faster Than Expected
Navajo Generating Station, set to close in 2019 | Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons
Several of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States are scheduled to shut down this year, representing some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, as the cost from building new power-generating facilities using renewables or natural gas continues to fall relative to coal.
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Coal-Fired Power Plant
Source: Pixabay

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As coal-fired power plants become increasingly unsustainable in the face of the growing savings from alternatives energy sources like solar and natural gas, plant operators have been quickly shutting down the smaller and most inefficient coal-burning plants in an effort to shift resources to larger, more profitable plants that contribute to the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a new report in Scientific American reveals the extent to which even these larger plants are becoming loss-leaders for coal plant operators and are having to be shut down.

RELATED: REPORT FINDS COAL POWER INVESTMENT PLUMMETING 75% SINCE 2015

The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in the state of Arizona is slated to cease operations by the end of 2019, making it one of the largest carbon-emitting generators in the country to ever be taken offline. Between 2010 and 2017, NGS pumped 135 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, with an average annual emission during those years equal to the total emissions produced by 3.3 million passenger vehicles in a year. According to Scientific American, “[o]f all the coal plants to be retired in the United States in recent years, none has emitted more” than NGS.

While NGS is the largest carbon-emitting coal-fired power plant slated to be shut down this year, other major coal-fired plants around the country are facing the same existential problem as NGS and are major emitters in their own right. Pennsylvania’s Bruce Mansfield coal plant, which produced 123 million tons of emissions between 2010 to 2017, is scheduled to be shut down for good by the end of the year.

Kentucky’s Paradise coal plant generated 102 million tons of emissions from 2010 to 2017, the year that the Tennessee Valley Authority began shutting down the plant by closing two of its three units. The remaining unit will be taken offline at the end of this year.

About a decade ago, the smaller, more inefficient coal-fired plants around the country started being taken offline as the growth in renewables, and the abundance of cheap natural gas began to increase the costs of operating these plants relative to switching to alternatives. Soon, it was becoming cheaper to build entirely new alternative energy generating facilities from scratch than continuing to operate these smaller coal plants. Unable to compete, they needed to be shut down so resources could be diverted to the larger coal-fired plants whose economies of scale allowed them to be still competitive.

Those economies of scale appear to be increasingly unable to save a growing number of larger coal plants that only a few years earlier were believed to be able to hold on, even if they wouldn’t dominate the energy production sector the way they had for a century.

“It’s just the economics keep moving in a direction that favors natural gas and renewables,” said Dan Bakal, the senior director of electric power at Ceres, which consults with companies looking to transition to cleaner and increasingly cheaper energy sources. “Five years ago, it was about the older coal plants becoming uneconomic. Now, it’s becoming about every coal unit, and it’s a question of how long they can survive.”

How Will Latest Round of Coal Plant Closures Cut Down US Carbon Emission Levels?

Climate Change Crisis
Source: NASA/GISS

The first coal-fired plants to be shut down were smaller and poorly-utilized plants that didn’t add significantly to US carbon emissions, so their shutdown did little to arrest the rise in US carbon emissions. The Scientific Americanreport reveals that in 2015, 15 GW of coal-generated capacity was shut down, cutting the total number of coal-fired plants in the US by 5%, a record number of closures for a single year.

The reduction in emissions wasn’t comparably large, however. Those plants accounted for 261 million tons of emissions over the six years preceding the closures with an annualized average emission of 43 million tons.

For comparison, total closures of 14 GW of coal-fired capacity represented 511 million tons of emissions over a comparable period, with an annualized average emission of 83 million tons. When counting all of the closures slated for 2019, which represents 8 GW of coal-fired capacity and so just about half the capacity lost in 2015, these plants produced 328 million tons of emissions between 2010 and 2015 for an annualized average emission of 55 million tons.

“You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” said John Larsen, head of power-sector analysis at the economic consulting company Rhodium Group. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

There are a lot of factors that can give a false sense of the trends in the industry, however. Take the emissions figures cited for the final years of plant operations before their closing. In the final years of their operation, they would have been operating at a reduced capacity as the plant progressively took itself offline, so those numbers can’t be taken as representative for those plants, historically, much less for the industry overall.

What’s more, the most heavily emitting plants in the US have no anticipated retirement dates. Because these plants are even larger than the ones being closed this year, they can burn coal and emit carbon pollutants all day and all night long, every day of the year because the economies of scale drive down the costs of burning coal in these plants as opposed to smaller less efficient ones.

But there are reasons to give credence to the data reported on in Scientific American. Other economic data point to the unsustainability of an increasing number of coal plant operators. Several major coal mine operators have declared bankruptcy in the last 12 months, even as President Donald Trump has made saving the coal industry a major priority for his administration.

The situation is becoming so desperate for the industry that memos from the US Energy Department were leakedto Bloomberg last year, revealing that the administration was considering direct intervention to force power utilities to purchase energy from coal-fired plants. The justification for such an unprecedented intervention into the private energy sector was the argument that national security required ‘always-on’ power capacity and that without coal and nuclear power, this capacity in the electrical grid could be threatened.

While that argument is highly debatable, what isn’t is that coal is increasingly approaching a total collapse of the coal industry, from mine operators to power generators. Research indicates that regions that depend on coal as their main if not only economic driver could face regional depressions in the years ahead. The collapse of coal will not be without consequences for a substantial number of people.

But just as it makes economic sense to simply build an entirely new renewable or natural gas generator than to continue to use an existing coal-fired plant, the costs of propping up coal plants that will never make money in the future with the compelled sale of coal-generated energy to utilities will be greater than it would cost to direct massive government and private investment into coal-reliant communities to build entirely new–and hopefully diverse–industries that can replace the coal jobs that are going to be lost.

For now, the largest coal plants may be operating on the assumption that they can weather the hurricane-force headwinds for the coal industry, but the NGS, Bruce Mansfield, and Paradise plants thought they could hold out too. Now they’re the inefficient dead weight in the industry that is getting cut. How long until no coal-fired plant in the country can sustain itself in competition with alternatives whose most innovative days lay ahead while coal’s glory days were decades ago?

With the climate crisis accelerating at the rate that it is and the economics in the energy industry trending further and faster away from coal than anyone imaged two decades ago, the only sane policy for the planet–and for the communities who rely on coal for their existence–is to take action now rather than bide for time that will never be given. By taking the industry out behind the barn and putting it out of its misery through public policy in an orderly way rather than wholesale and sudden collapse, we can then be empowered to invest resources into new industries to give the old coal communities the economic support they’ll need to make the transition. Any other policy at this point is simply madness.

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    In Hawaii: Clean Energy At 1 Cent Per Kilowatt-Hour

    From CleanTechnica.com by Scott Cooney, August 18th, 2019 

    The geothermal plant on the big island in Hawaii produces very inexpensive baseload renewable energy … but it still ain’t 1¢ per kilowatt hour. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii State Energy Office.

    We need clean energy, and we need it ASAP. There are barriers to getting it done, including permitting, price, land-use issues, energy-water nexus issues, lobbying efforts by the fossil industries and the puppets they install in our government, and more. Capital projects can take years to develop as a result of these obstacles. On any given project, one of these barriers may be the biggest impediment or no impediment at all … it’s very case by case in renewable energy development.

    Price is perhaps not the biggest challenge very often, as solar, wind, batteries, and even electric vehicles have all dropped enough in price that they can overcome polluting competitors in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour in most cases. But have you ever seen anything like 1 cent per kilowatt-hour?

    The answer, of course, is efficiency. The cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one you don’t use, after all. But what does that mean, exactly, that there’s a price on something that doesn’t exist?

    In Hawaii, we have a Public Benefit Fund (PBF), a small line-item surcharge placed on our electric bills. It might be a dime or a nickel on any given bill, but add it up across a state with more than a million residents and a whole lot of tourists on any given day, and the result is a pool of money big enough to do some serious good.

    Hawaii Energy, the ratepayer-funded efficiency and conservation program funded by the BPF, conducts everything energy efficiency, from rebates to direct install programs to education. Having a program like this with educated and motivated energy professionals has proven to be a tremendous step forward for Hawaii’s goals of 100% clean energy by 2045. Here’s a look at the challenge facing Hawaii, an island economy largely powered (currently) by fossils.

    Hawaii’s energy mix is largely fossil powered, making the change to clean energy imperative to save the state money, as those fuel sources inevitably get pricier. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii State Energy Office.

    Moving to 100% Clean Energy

    According to the Hawaii State Energy Office:

    “From July 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, the program invested over $22 million to deliver more than 1.8 billion kWh in estimated lifetime customer-level energy savings at a rough cost of one cent per kWh. This is equivalent to building a 92 MW solar farm, enough to power 288,000 homes for a year. In addition, this will reduce greenhouse gas [pollution] by nearly 1.5 million tons.” (emphasis mine)

    The state is moving the needle on energy in a big way, and efficiency has a huge part to play in that. The primary beneficiaries are, of course, the people of Hawaii. 1.8 billion kWh at our regular electricity rates would cost us $612 million. Investing $22 million seems like a reasonably good idea, no?

    Through a combination of Energy Performance Contracts (EPC), direct install efficiency programs, education, and incentives for things like Energy Star refrigerators, Hawaii Energy has helped the residents of Hawaii drop their household energy consumption from an average of 584 kWh per month in 2011 to 482 kWh per month in 2017, roughly a 17.5% drop. This has contributed to a drop in the average residential electric bill from $202 in 2011 to $145 in 2017, a 28% drop, and amounting to a savings of about $700 per year per household.

    Saving residents that money means that less money leaves the state to make oil tycoons in Saudi Arabia richer, and more money can circulate (and re-circulate) inside the state’s economy, boosting overall quality of life and economic conditions.

    Hawaii spent $22 million to save $612 million for its residents. So … why isn’t every municipality doing this?

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      Scientists bid farewell to the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change.

      Icelanders Mourn Loss of Okjökull Glacier With Ceremony, Plaque

      From Gizmodo, by Tom McKay, Aug 18, 2019 8:25pm
      The shrinking of the Okjökull glacier from Sept. 14, 1986 (left) to Aug. 1, 2019.
      The shrinking of the Okjökull glacier from Sept. 14, 1986 (left) to Aug. 1, 2019. Photo: NASA (AP)

      Politicians, scientists, and others gathered in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, northeast of Reykjavik on Sunday to mourn the loss of the Okjökull glacier, laying a plaque warning of the impact of climate change, the BBC reported.

      Okjökull, along with many other Icelandic glaciers, took serious hits from warming summers over the past two decades. It was officially declared inactive by glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson in 2014, when he discovered that snow was melting before it could accumulate on the cap, and there was no longer enough pressure being built up to keep the glacier moving.

      Scientists Wrote a Eulogy for Iceland’s First Glacier Lost to Climate Change.  That may sound like an Onion headline, but alas, it is not. We’ve reached the point in our wild…  Read more

      At that point, the word jökull (meaning glacier or ice cap) was eliminated from its name, leaving the site formally designated by the name of the shield volcano it was located on, Ok.  According to Slate, Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer were disturbed to see that the elimination of the glacier was almost entirely ignored in the English-language news media, filming a documentary titled Not Ok and later concluding the glacier’s demise should be commemorated.

      Attendees arriving for a ceremony at the former Okjökull glacier in Iceland on Aug. 18, 2019. Photo: Felipe Dana (AP)
      Attendees arriving for a ceremony at the former Okjökull glacier in Iceland on Aug. 18, 2019. Photo: Felipe Dana (AP)

      Attendees at the event included Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, and former Irish President Mary Robinson, according to the BBC. The plaque itself reads, in both English and Icelandic:

      Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

      August 2019

      415ppm CO2

      Author Andri Snaer Magnason, who wrote the words on the plaque, told the BBC, “This is a big symbolic moment. Climate change doesn’t have a beginning or end and I think the philosophy behind this plaque is to place this warning sign to remind ourselves that historical events are happening, and we should not normalise them. We should put our feet down and say, okay, this is gone, this is significant.”

      Calling Okjökull’s disappearance a “real loss,” Boyle told the BBC, “Plaques recognise things that humans have done, accomplishments, great events. The passing of a glacier is also a human accomplishment—if a very dubious one—in that it is anthropogenic climate change that drove this glacier to melt.”

      Glaciers are in bad shape worldwide, from North America and Europe to Greenland and Antarctica. A study in Nature this year estimated that glaciers lost over 10 trillion tons of ice between 1961 and 2016, which is enough volume to cover the entirety of 48 lower states in the U.S. in four feet of snow; another study published in The Cryosphere estimated the Alps will be stripped of 90 percent of its glaciers by the year 2100. According to the Associated Press, the lead author of the first study, World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich director Michael Zemp, said that glaciers are disappearing at five times the rate they were in the 1960s. Zemp added that in central Europe, the Caucasus region, western Canada, and in the lower 48 states, “at the current glacier loss rate, the glaciers will not survive the century.”

      Just as troubling, some studies have found that coastal glaciers in Antarctica are melting much faster than expected, which could have dire consequences for sea level rise. Even if humans stopped emitting greenhouse gases on an industrial scale tomorrow, Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Research Center climate scientist Nick Golledge told Earther, “The scary thing is it keeps melting. We’ve basically set in motion a series of changes which are gonna carry on playing out over the next few centuries at least, maybe thousands of years.”

      Sigurðsson told the BBC he has kept an inventory of Icelandic glaciers since 2000, finding that by 2017, 56 of the smaller ones had disappeared.

      “150 years ago no Icelander would have bothered the least to see all the glaciers disappear,” Sigurðsson told the news network, referring to the glaciers’ advancement over farmlands and flooding from meltwater. “But since then, while the glaciers were retreating, they are looked at as a beautiful thing, which they definitely are… The oldest Icelandic glaciers contain the entire history of the Icelandic nation. We need to retrieve that history before they disappear.”

      “We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told the audience at the ceremony, according to Deutsche Welle. “We have no time to lose.”

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        Bay Area Air District lawsuit: Clearing out the file cabinets, but not necessarily the air

        Lawsuit by Agency Whistleblower Alleges Widespread Document Destruction at Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

        Sarah Steel and Michael Bachmann at a press conference accouncing their suit against the air district. Steele later settled. - PHOTO BY BOBBY LEE
        Sarah Steel and Michael Bachmann at a press conference accouncing their suit against the air district. Steele later settled.  Photo by Bobby Lee

        A veteran employee of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has filed a lawsuit charging that the district destroyed important public records about air pollution, then fired him because he objected.

        Through interviews and court documents, Michael Bachmann and coworker Sarah Steele describe an agency culture that accommodated large polluters, shredded records of emission violations, withheld such documents from the public, and violated a legal agreement to preserve its data. A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the case.

        Bachmann had worked for the air district for more than a dozen years when he was asked, in 2014, to take charge of a massive overhaul of the agency’s records. The district was planning to move its headquarters and wanted to inventory, streamline, and digitize its files in preparation for the move.

        To help with this task, Bachmann hired his longtime friend Steele, who had experience creating and managing records systems. While she organized paper and microfilm documents, he worked with photographic images stored on computers, creating a digital system to organize and digitize them so they would be searchable.

        “My goal was to make sure everybody could see the history,” Steele said. Air District planners need records of past experience to guide future decisions about controlling air pollution. In addition, the district is required by law to retain many types of documents as public records. Steele said part of her motivation for this work came from growing up in El Sobrante, unaware of how pollution from nearby refineries was harming the health of her community. “So few people are aware of the horrific pollution going on in our backyards.” She said it’s important for people to know the history of pollution on a particular piece of land — such as the site of the notorious Berkeley polluter, Pacific Steel Casting, which recently closed.

        Bachmann is now restricted from discussing his suit by a recent court-imposed confidentiality rule, but he told his story in interviews before the rule was put into effect. His attorneys, Gary Gwilliam and Jayme Walker, provided additional details in the brief they filed in August 2017 in Contra Costa Superior Court against the district and six senior staff members. Steele, who also was fired in February 2016, was originally part of the lawsuit, but in June of this year she accepted a cash payment to settle her case. Steele and Bachmann, now a couple, were struggling financially after both losing their jobs, and Steele wanted to be free to talk about the case.

        As Bachmann and Steele worked on organizing the records, they began noticing things that disturbed them. In the summer of 2015, she said, “giant dumpsters began to appear” in the office. When Steele looked in the dumpsters, she found, among other things, reports of refinery “flaring” incidents, notices of violations of air-pollution standards, and documents pertaining to current litigation — all records that she thought should be kept. In August, according to the lawyers’ brief, an employee in the enforcement division also told Bachmann that documents related to litigation against Pacific Steel Casting were being improperly destroyed.

        At around the same time, Steele was working on sending paper and microfilm records to a contractor to digitize. According to the lawyers’ brief, one day air district Director of Enforcement Wayne Kino and attorneys Brian Bunger and Bill Guy “approached [Steele] in an aggressive manner and told her they wanted to destroy microfiche documents containing many records of violations of air quality.” Steele thought that request was illegal and reported it to Bachmann.

        In November, Bachmann told senior executives that records were being illegally destroyed and asked that they send documents to him first, rather than putting them straight into dumpsters. In an interview before the confidentiality order was imposed, Bachmann said Bunger overruled this request. He quoted the lawyer as saying, “If staff accidentally destroys these records, that’s OK, because they can only hurt us in the long run.”

        Meanwhile, Steele said, boxes of paper and microfilm documents were being shipped to a storage facility in Richmond. But some records were withheld from these shipments, sometimes with explanations, sometimes not. She said the process seemed “haphazard.” She continued to send records to be digitized, but senior officials told her not to digitize certain documents, including records in one huge, locked cabinet that Steele nicknamed the “magic cabinet.”

        Steele said Rochelle Reed, public records coordinator, stated in a deposition to the court that the cabinet had not been opened in more than ten years. After the cabinet was moved to Richmond, a staff member sawed off the lock. Inside, Steele found records of asbestos pollution, refinery flares, inspection reports, and settlements between the air district and companies that had been charged with violations. She expressed concern that these documents had not been made available for public records requests. Asked if she felt the district was withholding information from the public, Steele said, “Hell, yeah.”

        Another former air district employee, who asked not to be named, agreed that the district had mishandled public documents and destroyed many that should have been kept, but disagreed with Bachmann’s and Steele’s suspicions that this was being done intentionally to keep information from the public. The employee, who was familiar with the document-handling process, expressed the view that rather than “a conspiracy,” the records mishandling was due to “laziness and ineptitude.”

        That person, however, also reported having the impression that senior air district officials were reluctant to clash with industrial polluters. If the district were to impose large fines for air-pollution violations, for example, “the refineries would fight tooth and nail — and they have the best lawyers.” The former employee said district officials “want to work with industry, to be on their good side, [to have] a symbiotic relationship.”

        Steele believes this cozy relationship interferes with the public’s right to know about air pollution issues.

        In December 2015, Bachmann made another disturbing discovery. Over the summer he had downloaded all the photographic images of documents from agency computers. Since then, he had developed a software system for digitizing them to be searchable. But at the end of the year, when he went back to the computers to double check, he found that thousands of these images had disappeared. They included records of violations of air quality standards, complaints and actions taken, asbestos records, and communications between executives and industry. Gaps in numbering showed that documents were missing.

        In January 2016, Bachmann reported this to air district senior staff. His supervisor, Eric Stevenson, said later in a court deposition that Bachmann had been “ruffling feathers” of executive management: “He wanted … to be more in control of the documents system as opposed to … allowing the divisions to maintain control of that,” Stevenson said. Under further questioning he added that Bachmann wanted that control because “there was the potential that documents of records could be destroyed.”

        Air district employees soon received a flyer with their paychecks reminding them that the office move was imminent and encouraging them to “clear out unwanted/unneeded items.” The flyer specified that “confidential documents” should go into shredder bins and other materials into recycling containers, with no direction about which records to retain. The flyer promised a pizza party to the division with the best-cleaned-out office.

        The following month, Bachmann was summoned to a disciplinary meeting where he was told he was being suspended for a week without pay for violating the agency’s vehicle-use policy. Officials said he used an air district car in his commute, a widespread practice specifically allowed in the vehicle-use policy, Bachmann said.

        His absence gave agency officials an opportunity to second-guess his work. “When a government employee is suspended without pay,” he noted, “the agency gets access to your computer.” When Bachmann returned after a week, he found that his whole software system for digitizing records had been wiped from his computer — along with all the digitized documents. Fortunately, he said, he had stored all the information on a hard drive and backed it up in the cloud.

        On the same day Bachmann was suspended, Steele was told she was being let go because the project was finished. Yet after Steele and Bachmann were gone, she said, the district hired a contractor to continue the work they had been doing.

        Even before he returned from his suspension, Bachmann was suspended a second time, this time with pay. However, he maintained access to a security camera at the Richmond storage facility. He showed the Express pictures he said were stills taken by that camera in May 2016. The pictures showed records chief Reed directing a crew that was dumping boxes of stored records into bins, then wheeling them out to a truck labeled “Shred-It.” This despite a 2001 agreement in San Francisco Superior Court in which the air district committed not to destroy any public documents without keeping a record of them.

        Bachmann was finally fired in August 2017. At stake for him, as a career employee, was not only his salary but also his access to health care and other retirement benefits — although his retirement income is secure in the state employee pension fund. Reasons given for his firing were “misconduct,” “insubordination,” and “dishonesty.” The air district claimed he had misrepresented his military service and education on his employment application, but Bachmann said he has documents verifying these records.

        As a career employee, Bachmann was entitled to due process in a “Skelly hearing,” named after a court case that established this right. According to law, the officer conducting the hearing is supposed to be impartial. But Steele pointed out that Bachmann’s hearing was conducted by Jeff McKay, one of the district officials charged in the lawsuit with destroying records.

        The lawsuit is moving slowly, but scheduled to go to trial in December. So far the court has taken depositions from eleven air district staff members. Last April, Walker said, it imposed a fine on the district for “abusing the discovery process and not producing documents that they should have produced.”

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