Plant’s end sym­bol of trou­bled coal in­dus­try

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - NATION - By Dy­lan Lo­van Dy­lan Lo­van is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

DRAKESBORO, Ky. — Pres­i­dent Trump tried to stop it from hap­pen­ing. The top Repub­li­can in the Se­nate, Mitch McCon­nell, did, too.

De­spite their best ef­forts to make good on Trump’s cam­paign prom­ise to save the be­lea­guered coal in­dus­try, in­clud­ing an 11th­hour pres­sure cam­paign, the Ten­nessee Val­ley Au­thor­ity power plant at Paradise burned its fi­nal load of coal last month.

The plant’s clo­sure — in a county that once mined more coal than any other in the na­tion — is em­blem­atic of the in­dus­try’s decades­long de­cline due to tougher en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, a ma­jor push to­ward re­new­able en­ergy and a rise in the ex­trac­tion of nat­u­ral gas. The shut­ter­ing of busi­nesses na­tion­wide and a re­duced need for en­ergy amid the global coro­n­avirus pan­demic threat­ens to deal coal yet an­other dev­as­tat­ing blow.

“It’s not just one 1,000­megawatt unit clos­ing; they’re go­ing down all over the place,” said John Rogers, a former mine owner who lives in western Ken­tucky near the Paradise plant, lo­cated in Muh­len­berg County.

When coal­burn­ing plants close, coal min­ing loses its best cus­tomer. Since 2010, 500 coal­burn­ing units, or boil­ers, at power plants have been shut down and nearly half the na­tion’s coal mines have closed. No U.S. en­ergy com­pany, big or small, is build­ing a new coal­burn­ing plant.

Em­ploy­ment in the U.S. coal in­dus­try is the low­est in decades. Coal mine jobs have dropped by nearly 50% in the past decade to about 50,000 — a far cry from the 900,000 work­ers who were digging in coal mines when the in­dus­try hit its peak in the 1920s.

Elec­tric util­i­ties are telling in­vestors and cus­tomers that coal costs too much, mostly be­cause of the money it costs to off­set en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects, such as the re­lease of car­bon diox­ide. Black­rock, the world’s largest as­set man­ager, in­formed its clients in Jan­uary that it would no longer in­vest in com­pa­nies that get more than 25% of their rev­enue from burn­ing coal.

Elec­tric util­i­ties — and their cus­tomers — have in­stead em­braced re­new­able en­ergy and cleaner­burn­ing gas burned in com­bined cy­cle plants, which have a smaller foot­print and about a tenth of the work­ers of a coal plant. One such plant opened in the Paradise plant com­plex in 2017.

“I saw the de­ci­sion to pro­ceed with the re­tire­ment of Paradise … as a sign that both the mar­kets and the Amer­i­can peo­ple have turned so strongly away from coal,“said Mary Anne Hitt, who leads the Sierra Club’s cam­paign to end the use of coal.

Dy­lan Lo­van / As­so­ci­ated Press 2014

The Ten­nessee Val­ley Au­thor­ity power plant at Paradise burned its fi­nal load of coal last month. Min­ing jobs have dropped by nearly 50% in the past decade.

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