Blue Coal ?

Blue Coal?
October 2019

In the first two parts of this series, Infrastructure Ideas reviewed prospects for the coal industry, and forecast that the decommissioning of coal-fired generating plants would become a major destination of infrastructure (and climate-related) investment before long. In this third and last piece of the series, we focus on some possible unexpected political fallout from coal’s situation.

The central development to consider, in understanding how the sunset of coal is likely to affect politics, is its lack of economic competitiveness. In past decades, with coal cheaper s a source of electricity than other alternatives, the logic to politics was to be anti-government: the biggest threat to coal economics, and to coal jobs, was seen as government regulations. Not surprisingly, the stronger climate and pollution concerns became, the more strident the anti-government intervention politics of coal became. But economics are a wholly different threat. Coal-fired generation in the US is shrinking rapidly. In Europe, a recent report claims 4 out of every 5 coal-fired plants is losing money (Apocalypse Now, by Carbon Tracker). With the change in economics, the politics will change too. In the US, the beginning of this change became visible in the first two years of the Trump administration, with the odd couple of a conservative White House – elsewhere completely focused on dismantling government regulations — advocating in this case for government intervention, in the form of price supports for coal-fired electricity. Again not surprisingly, this strange strategy was dead on arrival – it went against the grain of both strong economic trends and the rest of the Republican agenda.

As coal becomes both uneconomic and a growing target for climate change concerns, we are likely to see political realignment. Coal will receive public funding, as in the US the current Republican administration has sought. But it will receive it for different reasons, and driven by different politics. What we will increasingly see is a drive for the use of public funding not to keep coal going, but to shut it down. And, crucially for the politics, for using the public funding also to help adjustment of the workforce in the coal industry. For Democrats, using public funds to intervene in the economy has long been a staple of policy, and now counteracting climate change is as well. With the likely acceleration of public concerns over climate change (see part I of this series), decommissioning coal is also likely to become a top policy priority for Democrats. Which implies that both owners of coal plants, and workers in the industry – now facing large-scale closures and loss of jobs — will in the future look for support not to their traditional republican allies but to democrats. Money makes for strange bedfellows…

One of the western US states with many coal plants both coming to the end of their life and/or becoming uneconomic is Colorado, and the state has shown one replicable way forward in managing associated tensions that could work for other coal-intensive locations (see Colorado May Have a Winning Formula on Early Coal Plant Retirements). While coal has been a key source of both energy and employment for decades, Colorado has been seeing wind power purchase contracts coming in at extraordinarily low levels, between $0.015-0.025 per kilowatt-hour, and even bids to provide a combination of solar power plus storage at under 4 cents/Kwh – almost half the cost of what electricity from new coal-fired plants would be. Colorado’s new plan is to use securitization from ratepayer-backed bonds to pay out decommissioning plants, and then to reserve some of the bond income for helping workers in affected areas. The bonds pay out the equity base of old plants from the utilities. While this piece of the mechanism has been tested before, the important complementary part of Colorado’s approach is the creation of something called the “Colorado Energy Impact Assistance Authority,” which will focus on helping workers displaced by the decommissioning.

Another example of changing political discussions around coal can be found in Arizona. There one of the largest coal-fired plants in the US, the Navajo Generating Station, is closing due to the loss of customers. Utilities in the region have shifted to wind and solar to save money. A bill introduced last month in the US House of Representatives (see the IEEFA’s Bill to Spark Federal Post-Coal Reinvestment in Arizona Tribal Communities Is a Good Beginning) calls for federal economic development and revenue replacement in the wake of the collapse of the coal industry in northern Arizona. The bill would fund large-scale clean-up and remediation around both the plant and its associated mine, Kayenta, continuing employment for many of the current workers (the power plant and mine are by a wide margin the largest employers of Navajo, with about 750 workers between them). It would also retool the existing transmission infrastructure towards solar power generation. Funding would go to tribal and local governments to compensate for losses due to decommissioning under a schedule that would replace 80 % of lost revenue initially, reducing by 10% annually. The IEEFA review of the bill notes it “could very well serve as a template for broader bipartisan legislation supporting federal reinvestment in coalfield communities nationally, including in Kentucky and West Virginia and the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, regions that are taking disproportionately heavy casualties as power-generation demand for coal recedes and local coal-based economies adjust to new market realities.”

Of particular note is that the Arizona bill was introduced by congressman Tom O’Halleran – who began his career as a Republican, and switched to the Democratic party.

It is way too early to tell whether either the Colorado or Arizona approaches will be a model for other regions. But what is clear is that the issues the two states are addressing are going to become very widespread – and faster than most people realize. It is also clear that similar approaches – with public intervention to accelerate and smooth the transition away from coal – will be the only alternative to bankruptcy for plant owners and unmitigated layoffs for workers. And it is clear that the amount of public resources needed to help both owners and workers will be very large. Not something a party bent on shrinking government is likely to manage. Look for coal country to start turning… Blue.

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