Where there’s smoke, there’s coal

Renewables and emissions targets under attack from the USA to Southeast Asia

Sally Tyler

Environment & energy, Trade and industry | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

13 October 2017

New Trump Administration moves to bolster coal-fired electricity production echo recent moves to embrace the polluting fossil fuel in Southeast Asia, and threaten both renewable energy goals and greenhouse gas emission targets of the Paris climate change accord, Sally Tyler writes.

US Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry just delivered a double dose of bad news for proponents of renewable energy. Last week, he announced that the department would provide an additional US $3.7 billion in loan guarantees to complete the stalled construction of two controversial nuclear reactors. He also included a request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it adopt rules to allow nuclear and coal plants competing in regional electricity markets to be disproportionately compensated.

The commission, which has historically been fuel neutral, is now being asked to favour certain types of energy generation in its policies. If the commission adopts policy to prop up coal and nuclear-powered electricity plants, then renewable energy, including solar and wind, will be disadvantaged. On top of that, grid operators will likely begin dropping them from their production line-up, virtually ending competition in regional electricity markets.

Ironically, this blow to investment in renewable energy arrives simultaneously with a new study which concludes that ocean wind power generation can exceed land power generation by a factor of three or more. The study suggests that if deepwater wind farms were to become technically and economically feasible, which will be heavily influenced by the course of investment, they could potentially provide civilisation-scale power.

Perry’s announcement comes on the heels of a controversial report issued by his department on the sustainability of the US electric grid. The report concluded that coal and nuclear plants are being priced out of the electricity market not just by natural gas generated through fracking, but also by the growing use of wind and solar, and the Trump Administration’s favourite stalking-horse – government regulation.

Perry’s solution is to not only subsidise industries which are proving to be uncompetitive, but also recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ease permitting requirements for new investments in coal plants, and to urge the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to loosen safety regulations at nuclear plants. Even for an administration that seemingly cannot clear its throat without uttering the phrase “government regulations stifle business innovation,” this attack on health and safety regulations at coal and nuclear plants will undoubtedly prove unpopular, even within its elusive base.

More on this: The Trump Presidency is a fork in the road for climate action

This week, EPA director Scott Pruitt implemented those marching orders by announcing that the “war on coal is over,” and that the agency will rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. That 2015 rule required utilities to steeply reduce carbon emissions as part of the administration’s overall goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, central to its commitments within the Paris accord on climate change, from which Trump has already signalled his intent to withdraw.

The Trump Administration’s renewed endorsement of coal mirrors Vietnam’s recent decision to mothball its long-standing plans to become Southeast Asia’s first nuclear-powered nation, in favour of coal. Citing concern over both the level of public debt needed to complete construction and “environmental risks” following the disastrous Formosa leak, the National Assembly announced a decision at the end of 2016 to halt development of the Ninh Thuan plant.

Instead, the rapidly-developing nation has decided to pivot to a greater reliance on coal. Vietnam is projected to derive more than half of its total electricity generation from coal by 2030.

This sharp increase in the use of coal will carry dire health effects, according to researchers at Harvard and the University of Colorado. Their report, The burden of disease from rising coal-fired plant emissions in Southeast Asia, concludes that Vietnam is the ASEAN country that will be most affected by coal pollution in the near future. They estimate that more than 188 excess deaths per million people will result there due to the burning of coal.

With the Asia-Pacific region representing four of the world’s top five coal producers (China, India, Australia, and Indonesia), significant shifts toward coal could create economic benefits in the area – but these will be more than offset by the erosion of progress toward the Paris accord goals. If investment in renewable energy stalls, the global objective of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 may prove unreachable. Thus, the “Bridge Scenario” to increase Southeast Asia’s reliance on renewable energy and decrease oil and coal consumption, envisioned by a 2015 report from the International Energy Agency, would be largely obliterated.

The latest Trump pronouncements on energy illustrate the cynicism at the core of many of his Administration’s policies. Market competition is its stated philosophical ideal, except in instances where favoured industries cannot keep pace, in which case, market-distorting subsidies suddenly become an acceptable recourse.

At a time when Trump’s bellicose rhetoric hints at taking up arms against other nations, it would be tragic if the US surrendered the fight against greenhouse gas emissions by declaring an armistice in the “war on coal.” And worse still if other nations follow suit.

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