Energy policy is a rather complicated domain. That complexity is worsened when factual errors (whether purposefully driven or accidental) enter into the discussion. In the weeks since the news broke about U.S. refined products now being a net export, rather than import, marketplace, it is hard to overstate the number of times where people have mistakenly claimed that “the U.S. is now an oil exporter”. Similarly, for years now, commentator after commentator states that coal provides more than half of U.S. energy (difference, no, between energy and electricity leaped over) and more specifically more than half of U.S. electricity.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in what was mainly a quite strong speech (discussed here), added his voice to the list today:
if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening.
“Cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent” certainly is a clear statement that coal provides half America’s electricity.
This, however, is not true. And, it has not been true for years. And, with each passing year, as more renewables and natural gas systems come online, it is less true. Coal, in fact, fell below 50 percent of U.S. electricity generation back in 2004 according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (pdf). And, it has seen a steady fall in its share of the U.S. electricity market since then. In 2011, through September, coal provided a bit more than 40 percent of U.S. electricity supply: 1.353 million terrawatt hours out of 3.156 of total production. Thus, for the first nine months of 2011, coal electricity provided a bit less than 43 percent of total electricity supply in the United States.
Perhaps one can excuse this, since it is just a few words in a speech and 43 percent seems so close to half, but the reality of our current situation — even without meaningful climate change policy — is that coal is on an inexorable downward spiral as part of the U.S. electricity grid. As old coal plants retire, new generation has to come in and utilities are finding that natural gas and renewable energy sources are smarter and more cost-effective options than seeking to develop new coal power plants.
Now, Trumka is focused on the jobs implications of reducing coal burning. While it is, as per Trumka lays out, absurd to assert that 100% stoppage of coal burning overnight, reducing coal usage in electricity plants is not actually the primary threat to coal-mining jobs. The coal industry has been working, assisdiously, for decades to get the miner out of the mine and out of mining. Automation and surface mining (whether mountain top removal or otherwise) have had devastating impacts on coal mining employment over the past several decades. And, those impacts might actually accelerate as automation is reaching the point where many jobs (such as drivers for trucks) might simply disappear. For those in mining communities, they’re future prosperity is tied inexorably to their future health: seize a leadership role in the move to a clean energy economy.