America's Coal-Producing States Weigh their Options

A coal train rolls through a town in West Virginia, which produces more coal than any other state except for Wyoming.

A coal train rolls through a town in West Virginia, which produces more coal than any other state except for Wyoming.

Nobody was surprised to hear political foes of President Obama and leaders from several coal-dependent states blast EPA’s proposal to limit carbon pollution from America’s power plants.

The Clean Power Plan, released June 2, represents a big change in the way America will generate and use energy in the coming decades. We understand: Big changes are scary.

So it’s interesting to ponder which political leaders in states dependent on coal-fired power will, in the end, seize this historic opportunity.

Who will use the flexible policy tools offered in the Clean Power Plan to diversify their energy economies and unleash innovation to help their states grow? Who will show political courage?

Clean(-er) power for Texas

Just imagine if a state like Texas, my home state, used the plan to fully leverage its robust natural gas, wind, and solar resources. It would be a game changer.

Texas power plants, and the state as a whole, continue to lead the nation in carbon dioxide emissions.

Texas also leads the nation in producing more than 12,000 megawatts (MW) of wind energy. That’s impressive.

According to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, however, this represents less than 1 percent of Texas' onshore wind potential.

What’s more, Texas is at the top in solar potential, yet solar energy in Texas lags far behind wind at 213 MW of installed capacity. This spells tremendous opportunity.

So does Texas’ natural gas industry, which may be the biggest winner under EPA’s plan. The American Natural Gas Association predicts the new emission standards will increase natural gas demand by 45 percent – much of which will be produced by Texas with little impact to electricity prices.

In fact, the flexibility of EPA’s proposed plan offers Texas and other states dozens of ways to comply while improving public health and the state economy.

West Virginia: Rich in energy

Take West Virginia, where king coal has reigned for decades. It's among several coal-producing states that got a break by the Clean Power Plan.

West Virginia only needs to cut emissions from power plants by 20 percent by 2030, when the overall target for all 491 plants nationwide is 30 percent, and some states face cuts of 40 percent or more.

This has not kept West Virginia from threatening to sue the EPA over the rules, even as several of the state’s utilities said they’re already well on their way to meeting EPA’s rules.

But amid such noise there’s also optimism. The West Virginia University College of Law has already teamed up with a consulting firm to analyze EPA’s plan and to develop strategies some West Virginians hope will help the state transition to a cleaner future.

“West Virginia has an abundance of energy resources – including coal, natural gas, biomass, wind, solar and energy efficiency,” noted James Van Nostrand, director of the university’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development.

Finding the right mix, he said, will be the main challenge.

Meanwhile, other states enjoy a head start thanks to politically courageous decisions taken years ago. Colorado, a purple state and the seventh largest coal-producer in the country, is one such state.

Colorado blasts ahead

Voters in the Rocky Mountain State approved a renewable energy standard a decade ago and in 2010 the legislature adopted the “Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act.” It requires utility companies to get 20 percent of their energy from cleaner sources by 2020, speeding up the retirement of aging coal-fired plants.

Then in late 2013, Colorado became the first state in the nation to propose new methane limits for its oil and gas operations.

By reining in this highly potent greenhouse gas, and thanks to the steps it took over the past decade, Colorado may already be ahead of the curve when it comes to meeting EPA’s proposed standards.

And what does all this energy progress cost? According to one Colorado utility, Xcel Energy, the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act will cost the company $1 billion, with an annual rate impact of only about 2 percent over the next decade.

Yet the benefits to Coloradans are significant: $590 million in averted health costs and 1,500 construction jobs.

My guess is that not even in states such as Texas or West Virginia will they be able to deny for long the billions in cost-savings, millions in health benefits, and hundreds of new jobs that the Clean Power Plan promises.

This commentary originally appeared on our EDF Voices blog.

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  • About the author

    Vice President, US Climate and Energy
    Jim Marston is the founding director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), located in Austin, where he has served since its beginning in 1988. He is also a leader of the Pecan Street, Inc., a partnership that includes Austin Energy, the University of Texas, the Chamber of Commerce, and several large high/clean tech companies aimed at making fundamental changes in the nation's electricity grid.

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