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September 25, 2013

Coal's Days of Future Passed

Now that the EPA has released its draft carbon pollution standard for new power plants, coal apologists -- those who are left, anyway -- are doing their best chest-clutching Fred Sanford impressions.

Why is no one taking their cries of doom seriously? Because coal already had no future. In the 21st century, investing in a new coal-fired power plant makes as much sense as building a typewriter factory. The market has already decided that coal is no longer competitive.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy wants to triple the amount of utility-scale solar power on its grid while also adding another 450 megawatts of wind power. For the first time, the utility says, it's finding that new solar projects are bidding cheaper than coal and natural gas.

It's not just Colorado. Nationwide, the price of clean energy sources has plummeted compared with coal. The cost of wind is down 50 percent since 2009, and solar panels are down 80 percent since 2008. That trend will only gain momentum.

Michael Yackira, CEO of NV Energy, said earlier this year that "coal is not part of the long-term future of Nevada… we think the costs are too great, the environmental concerns and the costs associated with those environmental concerns are too great." The heads of major energy providers like American Electric Power and Duke Energy have also signaled the end of new coal-fired power plants in the United States.

The writing has been on the wall since at least 2009, when the global head of asset management at Deutsche Bank said that coal was "a dead man walking."

At this point, it's more like a crawl. "There aren't any new coal plants being built now," said Warren Buffett earlier this year. "You'll see wind, you'll see solar." Goldman Sachs recently forecast that Asian demand for coal would weaken and downgraded its price projections for international coal, and Citibank joined them in their analysis.

But even if the new carbon standards only confirm an existing trend, they're still both important and extremely welcome. They show that the United States is serious about its commitment to reduce carbon pollution. Even more important, they show that the Clean Air Act is still effective at protecting Americans from dangerous air pollution.


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Michael Brune

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