President Trump, with steady and consistent support from Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, has launched a national campaign to prop up uneconomic coal plants on the backs of the American people. Two recent actions highlight this unfortunate fact.
First, Perry threw the coal industry a lifeline through a directive to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would undermine functioning electricity markets and substantially increase Americans’ electricity bills. Then Pruitt announced plans to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The commonsense plan is expected to prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths every year.
Yet on the heels of the Trump administration’s reckless actions, a silver lining appeared in Texas. The state’s largest power generator, Dallas-based Luminant, announced it will close not one, not two, but three coal plant complexes early next year, with a combined seven units representing over half of the power generator’s total coal capacity. Luminant said, after reviewing the “long-term economic viability of these plants,” the decision to close them is “a result of challenging plant and market economics.” And Texas’ main grid operator just gave Luminant the green light, essentially saying the grid doesn’t need the plants to provide reliable power.
Since Texas’ power sector emits more greenhouse gas pollution than those of California, New York, and Florida combined, the significance of this decision for our air quality cannot be overstated.
Under the Clean Power Plan, Texas is supposed to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 33 percent from a 2005 baseline. Closing these three power plant complexes gets the state about halfway to the target — slashing carbon and other coal pollutants that can lead to heart attacks, asthma attacks, missed days of work and premature deaths.
The move also could help Dallas-Fort Worth meet health-based ozone standards. DFW has consistently been in or near the top 10 of the most ozone-polluted areas in the country.
Luminant said the decision is primarily financial, as cleaner energy sources have been squeezing coal in Texas and across the country. Put simply, coal can’t compete with cheap, abundant natural gas and the falling costs of renewable energy technology.
That’s why Luminant is not the only one shifting away from coal in Texas. San Antonio’s local utility, CPS Energy, is also closing its two oldest coal plants, regardless of the Clean Power Plan. Industry analysts are predicting additional coal plant closures in Texas over the next three years.
Meanwhile, as coal diminishes, clean energy’s star keeps shining brighter. In fact, with Luminant and others’ coal plants going offline, wind power capacity is likely to exceed coal’s capacity next year — a huge feat. And solar is growing exponentially: Texas’ main grid operator predicts solar will grow by more than 50 times in the next decade or so.
Furthermore, less coal and more renewables on the grid result in vast water savings. Coal uses a substantial amount of water to generate electricity — wind and solar PV use virtually none. In a water-stressed state with a fast-growing population, protecting valuable water supplies should be top priority.
The transition to cleaner, more efficient energy is not only cleaning the air and saving water but also creating thousands upon thousands of jobs in the state. Nearly 150,000 Texans work in energy efficiency-related jobs, and solar jobs grew by an impressive 34 percent in the state last year. And then there’s our booming wind sector, which employs 25,000 Texans, or almost a quarter of the nation’s wind power jobs. Comparatively, only a few thousand jobs exist related to coal power generation in the state.
This job growth presents an opportunity to help those employees affected by coal plants closing, who need efforts and support to be retrained for 21st-century jobs. Miners have valuable technical skills and should be empowered to take on new, safer career paths. Programs in West Virginia and Kentucky are training coal workers to be wind technicians and solar installers, for example. Texas should look to these examples to make sure everyone benefits from the clean energy economy.
The Trump administration seems intent on dirtying our air and propping up coal. But Luminant’s announcement shows that federal decision-makers can’t reverse the market trends surrounding coal, try as they might. If the state’s largest generator admits it’s not financially wise to keep coal plants open, it’s hard to envision a future for the dirty resource in our energy mix. So long as we protect Texas’ robust, competitive electricity market and fend off attacks as much as possible, we can all breathe cleaner air and keep electricity costs low.
John Hall is Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas director of clean energy.