Springing eternal

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Search for the meaning of this phrase (from Pope’s “Essay on Man”), and you’ll find that it is mostly used sarcastically nowadays to describe a lost cause. I promised myself that I would find hopeful signs to report in this month’s column, and in a week dominated by dire news from other parts of the world, that’s been a challenge. But the juxtaposition of “hope” and “spring,” as I watched the crocuses send up their first fresh shoots, proved irresistible.

It started Thursday with a heartwarming headline in the Washington Post: “Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Harlan County switches to solar power.” Located in the historic coal town of Benham, the museum is owned by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, whose communications director seemed a little sheepish as he announced that the museum would save at least $8,000 to $10,000 in annual operational expenses thanks to the rooftop solar panels. The project’s installer noted that surplus energy generated by the array will feed the town’s power grid and help lower electricity costs for the town’s 500 residents as well.

The delicious irony of this story provided the perfect grace note to a report in The New York Times the previous day, headlined “Coal has lost its grip on power.” That story described plans by a number of major regional utilities to retire coal-fired electricity plants—six since November 2016 and another 40 over the next four years. 

This transition has nothing to do with the regulatory climate or the goals outlined in the Clean Power Plan that our new president has vowed to rescind. One executive summed it up by stating: “Whatever happens in the near term in the current administration doesn’t affect our long-term planning for future generation.” Utilities, said the author of the piece, plan on a 50-year horizon and “Planners do not see coal as economically viable in that time frame.” The industry is moving on, planning to invest $1 billion in new wind and solar generation and $3 billion in transmission infrastructure over the next three years.

Thursday also brought news that 3,500 electric utilities serving 26 European nations have pledged to stop building coal-fired electricity plants by 2020.  Their commitment comes in the context of de-carbonizing electric generation while weaning key industries and sectors—including heating, cooling and transportation—from fossil fuel.

The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum’s choice to convert to solar power is emblematic of the fact that no one, not even the miners, believes in the illusion of a resuscitated coal industry, because there is no demand for coal. Those days are gone, and not because of regulation; it’s just an inevitable reality. We can respect what has gone before as an historical artifact even as we move ahead to better technologies. That and an abiding sense of hope are at the heart of the quality of resiliency we need now—environmental, political, and economic—and resiliency is a long-term proposition.


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