Inside Clean Energy: Fact-Checking the Energy Secretary’s Optimism on Coal

Dan Brouillette claims that coal is “essential to this nation.” One energy analyst calls his argument “both incredibly disingenuous and incredibly misleading."

Jul 1, 2020
The decline of coal is accelerating as coal-fired power plants, which are expensive to run, sit idle or even shut down. Credit: NREL

The decline of coal is accelerating as coal-fired power plants, which are expensive to run, sit idle or even shut down. Credit: NREL

Inside Clean Energy

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette has written a buoyant op-ed in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Patriot-News about the bright future of coal. His argument—that coal needn't be phased out, just made cleaner—was soon amplified by the U.S. Department of Energy and the coal industry.

This is false optimism.

Brouillette speaks of hope for new jobs and prosperity related to mining and burning coal, but ignores the overwhelming evidence that the industry is in decline—a decline that has accelerated under the Trump administration. He also ignores the main reason that we need to move away from coal, which is the fuel's outsize role in causing climate change.

Here are four things Brouillette wrote that are, at best, highly misleading:

1. "First, we can't get rid of coal. It is essential to this nation," he wrote.

Electricity utilities, which are the country's main consumers of coal, show through their actions that it is indeed very possible to get rid of coal, due to high costs and environmental concerns. Coal was the fuel for more than half of the country's electricity as recently as 2003, but was down to less than 25 percent last year.

And coal's decline is accelerating, with many coal-fired power plants sitting idle during the coronavirus crisis because those plants are some of the most expensive to operate.

Almost every week, a company announces plans to close a large coal-fired power plant. This week, it was the 848-megawatt Unit 4 of the Scherer plant in Georgia, which is one-fourth of the largest coal-fired power plant in the country. One of the unit's co-owners, the municipal utility in Jacksonville, Florida, said the decision to close the unit in 2022 "will lower operating costs, substantially reduce operating risks, and reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 1.3 million tons per year."

2. "Second, we don't have to get rid of coal. We just need to make it cleaner, which is what President Trump and his Administration are doing."

Here, Brouillette is referring to carbon capture and other technologies that aim to reduce or eliminate emissions from coal plants. Carbon capture is a process that stops carbon from being released into the air, and then stores it. The coal industry has been pointing to the promise of carbon capture for decades, but they have little to show for it, with billions of dollars spent on projects that have been scrapped or fell short of expectations.

I do not mean to say that carbon capture research is a bad idea. We're going to need to find affordable ways to capture and store carbon. But it is doubtful that this technology will be used to prop up the coal industry, which already has high costs before the added costs of capturing carbon.

3. "But what happens to renewables when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine? Contrast that with the rock-solid reliability of coal, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year."

First of all, coal power does not have rock-solid reliability. In extreme cold and flooding, coal-fired power plants can and do go offline. This is in addition to many outages for maintenance.

But the point I want to highlight here is that Brouillette is saying that coal is somehow an antidote to the intermittent nature of solar and wind. The resources that work best with solar and wind are those that can quickly ramp up and down, such as natural gas power plants and electricity from battery storage. Coal plants are not built to be constantly turned on and off the way that other resources are.

In today's grid, wind and solar are the least expensive resources and grid operators have learned how to keep the system reliable while using much more wind and solar than ever before.

A modern grid can handle much higher levels of wind and solar power than are now installed in the United States. To see this, look to the European countries where renewables are a larger part of the mix than here.

4. "Through a new initiative called Coal FIRST, we are laying the groundwork for tomorrow's coal plants."

By saying "tomorrow's coal plants," Brouillette is implying that energy companies will want to build new coal plants in the United States and that banks will want to finance them. That's a stretch.

Right now, the Energy Information Administration lists more than 1,200 line items related to new power plants in various stages of development in this country between now and 2027. How many of them run on coal? Zero.

Meanwhile, the economics of coal-fired power plants get worse every year as the costs of wind, solar and batteries continue to decrease. Despite this, Brouillette is saying that a new government initiative will help make coal-fired power plants more adaptable to the current grid and less polluting, and make these plants economically viable again.

But unless the government finds a way to make competing sources of electricity more expensive, there is little hope that any energy company will want to invest in coal-fired power whenever this federal program has results to show.

This reality is not something the Trump administration wants to discuss, having run on a pledge to restore the coal industry, and having little to show for it.

Joe Daniel, an energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, read Brouillette's piece and had a reaction similar to mine. He took to Twitter to lay out what he saw as a litany of errors.

"Secretary Brouillette's arguments manage to be both incredibly disingenuous and incredibly misleading," Daniel said. "It's profoundly disappointing and deeply frustrating to see yet another government official mislead the public about our health, safety, and basic economics."

I asked Daniel to tell me what he thinks leaders should be saying about the future of coal.

"Public officials and leaders in the policy world need to be honest with their constituents," he said. "And that means recognizing that coal is in a managed decline and we need to create the necessary support system to support workers and have a worker-centric transition and maintain the local economy and healthcare system so that those people aren't left behind."

What I Learned from Covering Chesapeake Energy

Chesapeake Energy, once the biggest player in shale oil and gas, filed for bankruptcy protection on Sunday, providing the latest evidence that the country's shale boom has yet to find a workable business plan.

When I saw news of the bankruptcy filing, I thought back to my one in-person encounter with Chesapeake's founder and then-CEO, Aubrey McClendon. He spoke at a 2011 energy conference in Columbus, hosted by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, which I covered as the energy reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.

This was the event where McClendon said that shale gas "would be the biggest thing to hit Ohio since the plow."

A drilling rig is seen just outside Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

A drilling rig is seen just outside Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

After his appearance on a panel discussion, he briefly spoke with the assembled reporters, and someone asked him what was, in hindsight, a very good question: How can you make money drilling for natural gas when the price of gas is so low?

His answer was that he would need to sell a lot of it.

He did sell a lot of it, but couldn't make enough money to cover the mountains of debt he had amassed. He died in 2016 when he drove his SUV into a concrete wall, a day after he had been indicted by federal prosecutors for alleged violations of antitrust laws.

Covering Chesapeake Energy and the shale boom in Ohio taught me to be skeptical of blustering executives who say they can change the world. Unless investors have infinite patience and bottomless bank accounts, businesses need to make money.

This is a good lesson for covering the transition to clean energy, where there is a steady stream of new players and technologies, and investors hungry for the next big thing.

And if an executive says that their business is the biggest thing since the plow, hold on to your wallet.

California Cities Swiftly Moving Toward All-Electric Buildings

The movement by California cities to embrace all-electric building codes is now moving at light speed, with giant steps in just the last week.

San Francisco officials said on Tuesday that they are introducing legislation that would be much like Berkeley's ban on natural gas hookups in new construction.

Just a few days earlier, the utility Pacific Gas & Electric said it would support the growing push for state rules that require new buildings to be all-electric.

These are all steps toward the possibility that there will be a statewide policy prescribing such buildings after California officials decide on revisions to the state building code that would take effect in 2023.

The pace of change is so rapid, "It's taken even some of the advocates by surprise," said Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a group of companies, advocacy groups and local governments working to move California toward all-electric buildings.

This speed is in contrast to previous changes, such as the decades it took for the public and policymakers to embrace rooftop solar, Bartholomy said.

His organization started in 2018. Berkeley's gas ban happened in 2019, and now 30 California cities have policies that ban gas or at least encourage all-electric construction in some way. The movement is happening in other states as well, with cities in Massachusetts also passing rules and many others considering similar actions.

But Bartholomy said he also is well aware of how far there is to go in his group's efforts, considering that only about one percent of California's buildings are all-electric.

I asked Bartholomy for the big picture of why it's important to decarbonize buildings. He said that all-electric construction is essential because new natural gas hookups are locking in the use of gas for decades, at a time when the entire economy needs to stop using fossil fuels. This electrification is part of broader changes that would include a transition to relying completely on renewable sources for electricity and all-electric vehicles for transportation.

"Ultimately, every customer we hook up to the gas network is digging the hole that much deeper, and we're installing a 60- to 80-year asset for a building in a state here in California which has said in the next 25 years we need to completely decarbonize," he said.

The San Francisco legislation was introduced on Tuesday by Rafael Mandelman, a member of the city and county Board of Supervisors, who was joined by Debbie Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

"This ordinance is San Francisco's way of acknowledging that we do not want to build in a dependence on natural gas," Raphael said in a news conference. "We need to make sure our buildings of the future are resilient and ready for a city that is committed to tackling climate change."

If adopted, the rules could ban natural gas in nearly all new buildings starting in January.

It wouldn't be the largest city in California to adopt such an ordinance—that would be San Jose—but it would be a milestone in the growing popularity of these types of city actions.

How Do Low-Income Residents Fit into the All-Electric Movement?

With dozens of California cities passing building codes requiring all-electric or mostly-electric new construction, Srinidhi Sampath Kumar, sustainable housing policy and program manager at the California Housing Partnership, is working to make sure affordable housing is included in the transition.

The combined financial and health benefits of electrification—the use of natural gas in households is linked to respiratory illnesses—make eliminating gas from low-income residences an urgent concern and will ensure housing remains affordable in coming years, she said.

California's building market is transitioning increasingly toward electric construction.

Unlike with standard construction, affordable housing developers can't just make up for higher costs associated with electric construction by raising rent to compensate, since the goal is to keep rent as low as possible, Kumar said.

She hopes that a state initiative designed to reduce the carbon footprint of new low-income residential buildings will help facilitate the shift from gas to electric construction for affordable housing developers, who already face limited budgets and tight timelines.

Many such developers are new to all-electric construction. If funding is specifically allocated to provide technical assistance, it will make the shift more feasible, she said.

But "new construction is really just the starting point," she said. California's existing buildings will need to be retrofitted to rely on electricity instead of natural gas.

The state's Low-Income Weatherization Program electrifies existing affordable housing, but it currently has an 18,000-family waitlist.

All-electric retrofitting is riskier and more complicated than starting from scratch. It involves considerations like rewiring and upgrading of the technologies already in place. Once this new equipment is installed, tenant protection becomes the next concern. 

With these upgraded technologies, "what are utility bills going to look like?" Kumar asked. It's one of many questions that government and nonprofit leaders will be asking as all-electric buildings become the norm in California.

Reporter Nicole Pollack contributed to this story.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN's weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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