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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/22/21

The first thing we do, let's kill all the Coal Plants: How Joe Biden can save the Planet

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President Biden signs order to rejoin Paris climate accord
President Biden signs order to rejoin Paris climate accord
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My title is from William Shakespeare's Henry the VI. In the original, Dick "the Butcher" is speaking of ways to overthrow the king and improve the country, and he suggests killing all the lawyers first. Nowadays, carbon dioxide is the thing preventing us from improving the country.

President Biden has already swung into action, with a number of important climate initiatives. I'm urging that closing coal plants be at the top of his agenda.

The United States had 241 coal-fired power plants in 2019, which generated 23% of US electricity, an installed capacity of 236 gigawatts.

It is a scandal, an atrocity.

We desperately need to close these 241 coal plants. Like, yesterday.

We also need to shift from coal to electric arc steel-making fueled by the sun or wind.

Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel, giving off twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, and in addition burning it puts out particulate matter that gives people lung disease and mercury, which is a nerve poison.

Coal plants have been closing like crazy because burning coal is increasingly more expensive as a way to make electricity than wind, solar and natural gas, all of which have fallen dramatically in price in the past decade. From 2010 to 2019 some 290 coal plants closed because they just couldn't make money.

Excel in Minnesota is replacing some coal plants with solar farms.

No new coal plants are being built in the U.S. In fact, Julian Spector at Greentech Media reports that 84% of new power plants to be built in the US in 2021 will depend on wind, solar and other renewables. The other 16% will be natural gas.

Unfortunately, market forces, which in any case depend on the tax and regulatory framework and are not "natural," will not accomplish this task fast enough to save humanity as they now stand.

President Biden can impel some of this shift away from coal through executive order. The odious Trump had attempted to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from pushing plants to switch away from coal. The courts shot his argument down. So reports Alex Guillen at Politico, who points out that President Biden can use the ruling to reinvigorate President Obama's Clean Power Plan. That plan put pressure on coal plants to adopt another less polluting fuel instead.

Likewise, executive orders will only go so far. We need to shut down all 241 coal plants in short order, not draw out the big carbon emissions over decades. Michael Mann argues in The New Climate War that only a carbon tax can accomplish this work in the time needed. Some have pushed back against this step because they see carbon taxes as regressive. But taxes are only progressive or regressive depending on how they are designed. Moreover, since the typical coal plant generates electricity at a cost of 5 cents per kilowatt hour, and wind and solar are more like 2 or 3 cents per kilowatt hour, if a carbon tax can shift power generation to renewables, workers and the poor will pay less for their electricity, which is progressive.

To ensure that workers in the coal industry are provided with well-paying jobs in renewables, we also need government training and incentives for them.

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Juan Cole is an American academic and commentator on the modern Middle East and South Asia.  He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Since 2002, he has written a weblog, Informed Comment (more...)

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