Column: Clean energy makes economic sense

Shannon Fisk

President Donald Trump’s new executive order on climate change isn’t a green light to ramp up spending on coal plants. As more utilities and decision makers throughout the country are finally acknowledging, the market has turned against coal, regardless of what happens in Washington.

For utility customers and taxpayers, this is a good thing. Our money has been used too long to prop up an outdated industry while cleaner and cheaper options come online every day. It’s as if our government was stubbornly insisting on subsidizing horse and buggies while everybody else whizzed by in cars, and the horse-and-buggy industry continued to have its hand out for more money to keep going.

Throughout the United States (and the world), savvy utility companies are seizing economic opportunity. The cost of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower are plummeting, and energy efficient goods are now mainstream. Clean energy is galloping past the old fossil fuel buggies, with even DTE Energy now saying that it will retire three of its five coal-fired power plants by 2023. Consumers Energy, meanwhile, retired seven of its smallest coal units in 2016.

With Michigan’s official state goal of meeting 35 percent of the state’s energy needs through renewables and energy efficiency by 2025, the market forces will continue to favor renewable energy, especially wind power. Solar is expanding rapidly, too. Michigan’s solar industry workforce grew by 48 percent in 2016, an annual analysis of U.S. jobs data by the Solar Foundation found. According to a 2015 report by Clean Jobs Midwest, Michigan is home to more than 87,000 clean energy jobs and counting.

Dirty coal can no longer compete. In the past seven years alone, the costs of generating electricity from wind power in the U.S. has dropped by 66 percent and the cost of solar has plummeted by 85 percent. Meanwhile, aging coal plants face declining efficiency and/or substantial costs simply to keep plants built in the 1960s and 1970s operating.

Trump’s climate change executive order may make good politics as a high-profile payback to his big fossil-fuel donors. But nothing in that order will change the substantial economic challenges faced by the coal industry. When it comes to dollars and cents, coal is losing. Michigan would be wise to stay on the clean energy course.

Shannon Fisk is managing attorney for the Earthjustice Coal Litigation Program.