February 8, 2011- Nick Engelfried
When Purdue University announced last week it is cancelling plans to build a new campus coal plant, it marked a monumental victory for environmentalists and defenders of public health. The Purdue plant was the 150th new coal plant to be cancelled since then-Vice President Dick Cheney unrolled plans to build a new fleet of coal-fired power plants in 2001. Coal plants are a major source of carbon dioxide, mercury, soot, and other pollutants in the United States, so the end of the coal rush is good news for the environment and human health.
“The pollution from coal plants is making us sick, worsening asthma, stifling childhood development and cutting short thousands of lives,” said Verena Owen, volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Phasing out coal is essential to cleaning up our air and water, and protecting our families.”
The Sierra Club, one of the oldest and largest environmental groups in the United States, has played an important roll in defeating proposed coal plants. In the past two years not a single new coal plant has broken ground in the US, and the majority of those proposed for construction since 2001 have been cancelled. Many utilities and energy companies have pulled the plug on coal projects due to public pressure at the state and local level, as concerned citizens have turned out to public hearings and other public venues to express their concerns about pollution.
The falling cost of cleaner energy alternatives, like renewables and natural gas, has also made coal a less attractive investment. In addition new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations intended to protect public health are likely to increase the cost of burning coal and have added a new incentive for utilities to switch to cleaner options. The Obama administration’s EPA is moving to update pollution limits for coal plants for the first time in years, with the aim of making toxicity standards consistent with the latest science on pollution health effects.
Yet while the effort to halt construction of new coal plants is nearing completion, there is still the question of what to do about the six hundred or so coal-fired power plants that already exist in the United States. If all or most of these plants continue to operate indefinitely, it will be probably be impossible to limit the effects of climate change. Meanwhile pollution from the plants contributes to asthma, heart disease, respiratory illness, and other health problems in nearby communities. Buoyed by their success in stopping new coal plants, environmental groups are moving to take on the existing coal fleet—and have already had many successes.
Thanks to pressure from the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and other organization, states like Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona have announced they will retire major coal units and replace them with cleaner energy sources. Early retirement dates have already been unveiled for more than fifty US coal plants. A significant number of these are coal power units located on college or university campuses, where students have taken the lead in pressuring their administrations to shift to clean energy. While Purdue was the only university in the country planning to build a new coal plant, close to a dozen schools have announced they will be retiring existing coal units.
“The way people, businesses, governments and schools think about energy has shifted,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. “It is clear that clean energy technologies—ones that don’t spew life-threatening pollution into our air and water—are the way to a prosperous, secure energy future.”
Photo credit: Sol Young