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A Kentucky Power Plant's Destruction Signals the Demise of Coal Production

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

An implosion of Kentucky coal-powered power plant Cane Run Generating Station came as the generation of renewable energy passed that of coal.

The LG&E plant before it was demolished

The 1000-megawatt Cane Run Generating Station was retired by its owners, LG&E, in 2015, but its demise, done by a controlled implosion, symbolized the decline of coal across the nation. A recent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shows that the generating capacity of renewable energy surpasses that of coal.

Michael Bloomberg, ex-mayor of New York City, billionaire, and philanthropist, funded the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal project, which was behind the demise of Can Run. He recently announced that he will be giving half a billion dollars to a new effort called "Beyond Carbon," which builds on Beyond Coal's efforts to remove all remaining coal-fired plants in 11 years by blocking natural gas plants from replacing them and making renewable energy the replacement.

Bloomberg stated on June 7 at an MIT commencement address that climate change "is now first and foremost a political problem, not a scientific quandary, or even a technological puzzle." He also stated

"we can't put this mission off any longer"

The Sierra Club Wants 240 More Closures

In 2002, the Sierra Club started the Beyond Coal program in response to the George W. Bush Administration's "coal rush" plan to build 150 new coal plants. To date, the program has shut 290 coal plants, with 240 more to go. In place of the Cane Run station, a gas plant was put in.

In West Virginia, coal has dissipated and natural gas has risen, causing friction with renewable energy. Governor Jim Justice said that Bloomberg's pledge is a threat to the state's economic future. Justice told reporters that "[Bloomberg's] goal is to extinguish fossil fuels." He also attacked Bloomberg by stating that he is "a New York super liberal that lives in an absolute bubble" who is going after the livelihoods of West Virginians. "I can't see in any way, shape, form or fashion that we need to let some bubble boy that is in New York that is donating a fraction of his money to destroy us."

For his part, Bloomberg stated that "we intend to succeed not by sacrificing things we need, but by investing in things we want—more good jobs, cleaner air and water, cheaper power, more transportation options, and less congested roads."

Renewable Energy Surpasses Coal

At the same time as the implosion of Cane Run, America hit a renewable energy milestone. The generating capacity for renewable energy is greater than that of coal. Ken Bossong with the Sun Day Campaign, which supports a transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, cited the FERC report as a key point of inflection: U.S. electrical generating capacity by renewable energy sources, such as biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind, has now edged past that of coal: 21.56 percent to coal's share at 21.55 percent.

However, generating capacity is not the same thing as production, Bossong notes. But "if you have capacity," he said, "at some point the electricity generation will follow. It's just a question of lag time."

At the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, researches found at the end of April that the renewable energy sector is projected to generate more electricity than coal-fired plants. The numbers for April aren't in yet, so it is unclear if this projection hit its mark. Even if it falls short, that milestone will happen soon, according to Dennis Wamstead, an IEEFA analyst and editor.

One reason is that coal power is falling farther down the pecking order of the different types of energy tapped by grid operators because it's more expensive, he said. That fact, he said, shows up in what are called capacity factors, or measures of how much energy is produced by a plant compared to its maximum possible output.

The overall capacity utilization for coal plants is declining while those for wind and solar are rising, according to the latest Department of Energy figures. That change itself could be putting some still-operating coal plants at risk.

Coal plants were designed to run all day, but recently they have only been used intermittently, threatening to cause the coal plant to break down, adding to operational costs.

Little, a grandmother who lives near the Cane Run plant and helped the Sierra Club's campaign, said,

"Coal is definitely on its way out. I am so happy, and not for the individuals who have lost their jobs and culture. I understand that and respect that. But from my perspective, green energy won't hurt children."


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