While political uncertainty fills the New Year, energy security, thankfully, does not. The United States is shedding coal-fired power plants and replacing them with natural gas and renewables. And this is being done despite efforts by the president to curtail this course.
Warnings abound — ones that caution that the globe could overheat unless nation-states limit their heat-trapping emissions. Most recently, of course, the United Nations along with the National Climate Assessment have accentuated those findings. And while Donald Trump says that he trust his “gut instinct” more than those of the trained scientists — ditto for high-ranking military officials — leaders at the local and state levels have taken the primary role.
Trump’s withdrawal of the Paris climate agreement has not stopped the states, with at least 30 of them having created policies to encourage more renewables and more energy efficiency. And, by extension, they are discouraging the use of carbon-heavy fuels such as coal. Among the leaders in this area are California, New York and Washington State. And there’s also New Mexico, New Jersey and Nevada, as well as Washington, D.C. that just passed a green energy goal of 100% by 2032.
“New Jersey’s solar program is a critical component of reaching our goal of 100% clean energy by 2050 and I am extremely proud that New Jersey recently surpassed 100,000 solar installations,” said Governor Phil Murphy. “We are committed to the continued success of our solar program and the growth of this important industry while best serving the ratepayers and our economy.”
U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions dropped 0.9% in 2017 from 2016 levels, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s 5.14 billion metric tons less, mostly tied to fewer coal-related emissions, it says. And altogether, CO2 levels are 14% less than they were in 2005. Moreover, the U.S. economy grew by 20%, while U.S. energy consumption fell by 2%, all during the same time period. Natural gas is replacing coal. It is both inexpensive and abundant, and it is half the emissions.
Take Public Service Co. of New Mexico, which has set a goal of replacing much of its coal-generated electricity with renewables and natural gas: by 2032, it says that 70% of its generation will be emissions-free. Similarly, Berkshire Hathaway’s NV Energy has asked its public service commission to add 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity as well as to build 100 megawatts of battery energy capacity in Nevada — the largest green investment that the state has ever made.
“The six new projects position NV Energy to keep its commitment to double renewable energy by 2023 and, importantly, by diversifying our state’s electricity generation portfolio, will reduce the costs to serve customers,” NV Energy’s Chief Executive Officer Paul Caudill said. The utility’s long-term goal is to get to 100% green energy.
To be sure, at least 10 states are against both the Paris climate agreement and the regulatory efforts to curb carbon at home. Ten state attorneys general sent a letter to the president that emphasized the need for portfolio diversity. Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all signed the letter.
Those states are focused on using coal for electricity or producing it for sale. And they are drawing inspiration from a U.S. president who has vowed to rejuvenate coal, including his latest initiative to ease mercury standards — the most insidious emission of them all.
His rationale is that coal facilities are reliable and keep the lights on during harsh weather conditions, although U.S. regulators have said this step is not necessary. There are ample energy reserves, they ruled, even in coal-dependent areas.
“(T)he continued participation of the United States in the Paris Agreement creates significant practical and legal concerns of great importance to our States and our constituents,” the attorney generals wrote, according to the State of West Virginia Office of the Attorney General.
Those states, though, are going against the grain: 16,000 megawatts of coal-fired power retired in 2018 — despite efforts by Trump and state attorneys general to reverse the trend, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That equates to about 20 coal plants. U.S. coal-fired capacity has fallen by a third since 2010, it adds.
But the solar market has also taken a hit because of the tariffs now in place. For the first time since 2015, quarterly additions of utility-scale solar photovoltaics fell below 1,000 megawatts, says the Solar Energy Industries Association. It does expect, however, that the total installed U.S. solar photovoltaics capacity to double over the next five years, or adding roughly 14,000 megawatts.
“The results of (our energy plan) illustrate that energy needs are changing, and replacing coal supply with renewable energy and more flexible generators will save money for customers in the long run,” says the Public Service of New Mexico, in its Integrated Resource Plan that runs to 2036.
It joins other power companies, including Xcel Energy, which has committed to eliminating its carbon emissions by 2050. It adds that it will be 80% of the way there by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. Meantime, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. — a NiSouce unit — has also vowed to retire early its entire coal fleet, replacing it with wind and solar plants. And, PacifiCorp — another Berkshire company — is doing something similar.
California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York State and Washington State are all promising to produce carbon-free power between 2040 and 2050. While some criticize those jurisdictions for overreaching, their green energy incentives and standards have produced results. Those states are even more compelled to act because of inaction at the federal level — or the withdrawal from domestic carbon reduction efforts as well as those by the global community.
Utilities are meeting the challenges and their long-range planning efforts reflect the changing dynamics: for most, natural gas and renewables are their path forward as they leave coal behind. That means the president’s political clout is teetering while his energy policies are becoming irrelevant.