The (possible) slow death of coal

Healthier Americans, spikes in energy bills and everything else you need to know about coal's demise.


Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its plan to drastically cut domestic carbon emissions and, by extension, shutter some coal-fired power plants. It’s unclear just how many will close in coming years, but the Energy Information Administration projects 60 gigawatts of coal power plant capacity — enough to power about 27 million homes — will be retired by 2020.

The Post’s Lydia DePillis shows us the impact on one Colorado town: “To a wealthy community, skyrocketing electricity rates might not have much of an impact. … Pueblo is not that kind of community. With an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, incomes far below the state average and a third of the population on some sort of public assistance, it’s the kind of place where even a even a few dollars can make a big difference.”

Here’s what the decline of King Coal means in America:

1. Some Americans are spending much more on utilities. 

The data: Over the last measurable decade, the average American electric bill increased 6 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In some states, it was a lot more than that.

The story: The Post’s DePillis introduces us to a Colorado mother who can barely afford to flip a light switch. The state has pushed its utilities to move away from dirty fuels — years before the EPA issued regulations on existing power plants. But rates in some Colorado towns jumped fast because Black Hills Energy, the local utility, had to replace nearly all its cheap coal capacity with natural gas essentially overnight — which means ratepayers are footing some big infrastructure bills all at once:

“It’s not just the light switches, though, or your typical cost-conscious conserving. Ever since having her power shut off in 2010, Garcia’s reluctance to use electricity has a Depression-era obsessiveness: She doesn’t use the oven in the summer, because it heats up the house, and uses only one small air conditioner. She uses strict timers for her kids’ computer and TV use — not because she doesn’t want them to be using them more than an hour a day, but because they take too much energy. Even the aquarium goes dark when someone’s not in the room.”

2. As plants close, coal-centric communities will fade or reinvent.

The data: The number of coal-fired plants in the U.S fell 12 percent in the past 10 years, from 633 to 557.

The story: New York Times reporter Dan Barry introduces us to a widow whose coal town turned into a ghost town. Thanks to the new EPA regulations, America’s coal power will keep shrinking — and so will  towns built around coal.

“But Quinnie Richmond’s husband, Lawrence — who died a few months ago, at 85 — feared that leaving the home they built in 1947 might upset his wife, who has Alzheimer’s. He and his son Roger, a retired coal miner who lives next door, chose instead to sign easements granting the coal company certain rights over their properties. In exchange for also agreeing not to make adverse comment, the two Richmond households received $25,000 each, Roger Richmond recalls. ‘Hush money,’ he says, half-smiling.

As Mr. Richmond speaks, the mining on the mountain behind him continues to transform, if not erase, the woodsy stretches he explored in boyhood. It has also exposed a massive rock that almost seems to be teetering above the Richmond home. Some days, an anxious Mrs. Richmond will check on the rock from her small kitchen window, step away, then come back to check again.

And again.”

3. Yes, reducing air pollution could save your life.

The data: A coal decline is good for your health, according to the American Lung Association. Its grim findings suggest particle pollution from power plants kills an estimated 13,000 people per year. Since 1990, more than 200,000 coal miners in Appalachia have died from Black Lung disease.

The story: The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby details miner Gary Fox’s lung illness, a length battle for medical care and the tragic cost:

“It had been at least 15 years since Fox first noticed signs of black lung disease. It started with shortness of breath. Then a cough that yielded black mucus. By 1999, his symptoms convinced him to apply for federal benefits. A doctor certified by the U.S. Department of Labor examined him and diagnosed the most severe form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. The government ordered his employer, a subsidiary of behemoth Massey Energy Co., to begin paying him monthly benefits, but, as is almost always the case, the company appealed.

Gary and Mary now found themselves visitors in a foreign world — one populated by administrative law judges who must make sense of reams of medical evidence, sophisticated legal arguments and arcane rules; coal-company lawyers who specialize in the vagaries of the system and know how to attack claims; and doctors who consistently find cause to diagnose almost anything but black lung.”

4. The government tells us coal-born pollution will destroy the world, more or less.

The data: Coal plants generate an estimated 40-percent of carbon emissions in the U.S., according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

The story: The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Colbert describes the environmental mission of NASA scholar James Jansen, who fears global warming-fueled catastrophe.

“A few months ago, James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in Manhattan, took a day off from work to join a protest in Washington, D.C. The immediate target of the protest was the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and chilled water to congressional offices, but more generally its object was coal, which is the world’s leading source of greenhouse-gas emissions. As it happened, on the day of the protest it snowed. Hansen was wearing a trench coat and a wide-brimmed canvas boater. He had forgotten to bring gloves. His sister, who lives in D.C. and had come along to watch over him, told him that he looked like Indiana Jones…

Thirty years ago, Hansen, who is sixty-eight, created one of the world’s first climate models, nicknamed Model Zero, which he used to predict most of what has happened in the climate since. Hansen has now concluded, partly on the basis of his latest modeling efforts and partly on the basis of observations made by other scientists, that the threat of global warming is far greater than even he had suspected. Unless immediate action is taken — including the shutdown of all the world’s coal plants within the next two decades — the planet will be committed to climate change on a scale society won’t be able to cope with.”

5. Green energy gigs might replace coal jobs. If we can figure out how to create them.

The data: The EPA projects the coal-extraction industry will see losses of 11,500 to 14,300 jobs from 2017 to 2020 under its new regulations. On the other hand, the agency predicts, the renewable energy industry will gain between 15,800 and 19,100 jobs over the same period. (The numbers depend, however, on how states’ decide to lower emissions.)

The story: The Phoenix New Times’ Ray Stern examines the difficulties of taking solar wide in Arizona’s perennially sunny capital.

“Despite their almost magical trick of converting solar rays into electricity, even the newest solar panels are light-years from “free power.”

Solar power has been popular in the past few years, with thousands of Valley residents signing up with private companies to have panels installed on their roofs. But that’s because the stuff practically has been given away. Homeowners — combining rebates from utilities, the state, and a federal 30 percent discount for the installation company — have received up to 70 percent off the cost of a rooftop system.

Though rooftop and commercial-scale projects have remained popular as the subsidies have been pared down in the past couple of years, experts say it will be many more years before the industry can stand on its own.”

Danielle Paquette is a reporter covering the intersection of people and policy. She’s from Indianapolis and previously worked for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter: @Dpaqreport.
Steven Rich is the database editor for investigations at The Washington Post. While at The Post, he’s worked on investigations involving tax liens, civil forfeiture, cartels and government oversight. He was also a member of the reporting team awarded the Pulitzer for NSA revelations. PGP Fingerprint: 69FA 5730 ADDD 5488 24FE 6EB2 B727 D930
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Danielle Paquette · July 23