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Work began this month on the roof of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky. The museum dedicated to coal mining in the state is installing solar panels to take advantage of a cheaper form of energy. According to Communications Director, Brandon Robinson, “we believe that this project will help save at least eight to ten thousand dollars, off the energy costs on this building alone, so it's a very worthy effort and it's going to save money in the long run.”

Just two weeks later a coal mining company announced plans to explore building a solar farm on an old strip mining site in eastern Kentucky. Berkeley Energy Group, the coal mining company behind the project, estimates the farm could produce at 50 to 100 megawatts, which would yield five to ten times more electricity than the largest existing solar facility in the state.

Appalachian Power Co. serves about 1 million customers in southern West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. Its new President, Chris Beam, recently told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the big businesses which his company are trying to lure into the area are demanding “a power supply that is generated from 100 percent renewable sources. At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are,” Beam said.

In March, Donald Trump signed his executive order targeting Obama-era climate policies surrounded by coal miners. “You’re going back to work,” he promised, “We will produce American coal to power American industry.” While Trump may get some support in coal mining states with this type of photo op, he is giving coal miners false hope in a world with an energy mix changing as rapidly as our planet’s climate system. This changing energy mix isn’t so much from regulations put in place to reduce carbon pollution under President Obama, but more to do with market realities and the economic benefits of clean energy.

The largest customers for the American coal industry are the electric utilities. The rise of cheap natural gas sources and drastically cheaper renewable energy have been driving electric utilities to convert old coal-fired units to natural gas or retiring old coal plants in favor of new natural gas ones or renewables. Demand for coal is seriously dropping in the United States. New analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) points out there is a dwindling demand for coal abroad as well. “In the U.K., coal-firing shrunk to a miniscule 3.6 percent of total electricity production in the third quarter of 2016, and other European countries are finally — and belatedly — turning their attention to forcing the early retirement of coal plants…China has just announced the suspension of plans for 100 new coal plants, including ones whose construction has already begun…”

Renewable energy is now the cheapest form of energy in many parts of the world. This is great news for our planet, terrible news for coal.  How cheap are renewables now? Another report from BNEF and the United Nations lists “a hectic series of milestones for declining costs” taken from actual auctions around the world in 2016.  Auctions have developers bidding for the price at which they are willing to sell power from their planned projects. The lowest bids win long-term contracts to sell their power and then move forward with building the project. Some of last year’s bids:

  • $60 per MWh for solar in Rajasthan, India, in January
  • $30 per MWh for wind in Morocco, in January
  • $37.70 per MWh for wind in Peru, in February
  • $40.50 per MWh for solar in Mexico, in March
  • $29.90 per MWh for solar in Dubai, in May
  • $60 per MWh for solar in Zambia, in June
  • $80 per MWh for offshore wind in the Netherlands, in July
  • $29.10 per MWh for solar in Chile, in August
  • $55 per MWh for offshore wind in Denmark, in November

Note $29.10 per MWh is 2.91 cents per kilowatt-hour. For context, the average U.S. residential price for electricity is 12 cents per kWh.

Donald Trump ignores the market, and pushes policies betting our economy on a dirty, outdated, fuel source.  At the same time, the countries investing in the booming clean energy industry (like China) will reap the benefits of the $53 trillion market the International Energy Agency says will be needed to meet the goal countries agreed to in the Paris Climate Accord.  Donald Trump should realize the jobs powering our future aren’t going to be in the coal mines, they’ll be on the roof tops of buildings installing solar panels and on the mountain ridgetops building windfarms, and these are the jobs that will put the coal miners back to work.

— Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Lancaster. He is a member of the York Dispatch Editorial Advisory Board.

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