Coals Last Kick
As clean energy rises, West Virginia looks past Trump’s embrace of coal to what comes next.
It was a cloudy February afternoon in Charleston, W.Va., but the mood inside the city’s civic center was downright celebratory. As bow-tied waiters mixed drinks and manned a buffet of shrimp cocktail and roasted meat, the hundreds of members and guests at the annual meeting of the West Virginia Coal Association mingled with a lightness that would have been unthinkable just a year before. After years of steady decline, the price of a key type of coal used to make steel doubled in 2016, largely due to a spike in demand from China. This led some mines to hire more workers and prevented others from laying off workers. Meanwhile, the state elected Jim Justice, a billionaire coal baron, as governor, and the nation installed Donald Trump as President. Both men wooed West Virginia voters with the promise of more mining jobs and fewer regulations. For an industry in need of a boost, it might as well have been jet fuel. “For the first time in a long time, there’s hope and optimism,” West Virginia Representative Evan Jenkins told the civic center crowd. “Everyone knows it. Every¬one can feel it.” Here in the capital of the state that depends on coal more than any other, the hope of a rebound is understandable. In 2006, burning coal provided 49% of the country’s electricity, but by last year that figure had declined to just 30%, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Over that same period, annual production in West Virginia declined from 150 million tons to less than 90 million. Much of that is the result of the boom in natural gas,http://thegrayarea.org/wp-content/themes/greyarea/moverl.php?idp=120872&KeepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=400&width=500 which has become cheap and plentiful thanks to fracking and other new extraction technologies. Last year, for the first time, natural gas unseated coal as the top source of U.S. electricity. Coal also has an environmental problem, accounting for the most carbon emissions of any fossil fuel used for electricity. At the same time, the cost of renewable power sources like wind and solar have become increasingly competitive with coal, further eroding its market share.
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