Saturday, May 6, 2017

Trump Rolls Back Environment Protection but Solar Rules. It's the New Gold Rush

It's hard to accept when change is irrevocable. Hard for communities that have relied on an industry for generations to acknowledge that past glory days are over and they're never coming back. 

Coal mining is almost iconic in that regard. Employment in the industry has been declining for a long time, and miners have held onto the hope of a miracle reversal. But between 1920 and 2013, coal mining jobs dropped by almost a whopping 90%. In the same period, increasing mechanization saw production rise from 500 million short tons of coal to 982,677. 

Those who did retain employment clung on, as they did to the idea that the problem was political. In the run-up to the 2016 elections, Donald Trump made a lot of promises about bringing back coal. It won him votes, but it was a callous exploitation of people's fears and insecurity. The promise can never be fulfilled, because mechanization isn't the only challenge facing coal. In the US, and around the world, as coal mining becomes more expensive, solar becomes cheaper. Coal's growth rate declined by -3.4% between 1995 and 2014, whereas solar's increased by 65% for the same period.

In the US, figures for solar employment growth between 2010 and 2016 are a stark reflection of the power of solar throughout the country, and the trend towards the future. 

Once a niche industry, Solar is now mainstream, and can only go in one direction. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that within seven years solar will be the cheapest source of electricity, globally.

Which is good news for those who can embrace change, and who believe scientists' warnings that climate change is caused by global warming. It isn't just something of the future, it's happening now. Oceans are warming, ice caps are melting, unprecedented weather patterns are causing heat waves, violent storms. Toxic air pollution, smog and acid rain are increasingly common in major cities. Carbon dioxide emissions are the biggest contributor.

In America, coal plants are major culprits. Pollution controls help, so long as plants install the technology. Some do, but not all. And now the current US administration is rolling back environment protections, even going so far as talking about withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the first international acknowledgement that action must be taken now against global warming.

Unfortunate, to say the least, for the world, given that the US is the second largest contributor to global warming. But also unfortunate for Americans, economically. Countries that take the lead on developing alternative energy sources, especially solar and wind, will emerge as global economic leaders. China, whose contribution to global warming is currently double that of the US, could take the lead. Morals, ethics and caring about the planet aside, it's where all the money will be.  

“It’s becoming normal in more and more markets. Every time you double capacity, you reduce the price by 20 percent,” said Adnan Amin, Director General of International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group based in Abu Dhabi, quoted in Bloomberg

How wonderfully ironic that finally the most money will be made from industries that save the planet. The arguments are all in favor of investing in solar as a clean, efficient and increasingly cost effective energy solution. And there's no argument to continue with coal mining. No argument to invest in new plants either; economically it's becoming the least viable as a source of power. Even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham has installed solar panels on its roof, to cut down on electricity costs.

Coal isn't coming back, no matter which way you look at it. Painful as that is for coal-mining communities in the US, the truth is that they have another, better, sustainable option, one that is working for many already. Jobs in the electric power generation sector are mostly being generated by the solar industry now. 

Solar is the new gold rush. Massive corporations that are heavily invested in fossil fuels, with their lobby groups and politicians in their pockets, will have to realize that if they don't get in on the gold rush they'll be eating everybody else's dust.

It's understandable that coal miners are afraid. Change in their industry has been happening for a long time, but it's now hit the point of no return. Of course it's terrifying. But the consolation is that more and more jobs will be generated by alternatives to coal, especially solar, in states that have traditionally relied on coal mining. Miners will learn that there's nothing to be afraid of, and everything to celebrate. More jobs, nicer jobs! Better wages, a brighter future.