More than a decade ago, the Sierra Club kicked off what came to be known as its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Our goals were aimed at stopping dirty coal-burning power plants from being built, retiring the existing coal fleet, halting the export of coal to be burned in other parts of the world, and supporting clean solar and wind energy development across the country.
These were audacious goals, but utterly necessary if we had any hope of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and halting the worst effects of climate disruption.
Now, in 2018, we can look back and see that our campaign — in partnership with dozens of groups throughout our nation — has perhaps been the most successful campaign in the history of the environmental movement. Two hundred-plus dirty coal plants stopped before construction. Two hundred sixty-seven existing coal plants — more than half — are now retired or scheduled for retirement. Solar and wind energy are setting installation records every quarter and becoming dramatically more efficient and affordable for Americans. There is not a single new coal-burning power plant under construction anywhere in the United States today.
Given all that: Why does President Donald Trump continue to insist he’s going to do everything he can to revive the coal industry?
Coal is the single dirtiest source of electricity that we have. From the destructive mining practices that devastate communities, to the mercury, lead and dozens of other hazardous air pollutants that come out of smokestacks, to the toxic coal ash left behind after burning, coal is a clear and present danger to our environment and our health. Utilities, homeowners and industry are opting out of coal and turning more and more toward clean energy.
Lest you think this is a movement limited to blue states or liberal enclaves, consider what’s happening right here in our home state of Arkansas. Two of the biggest local coal burners — Entergy Arkansas and the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas — are collectively building solar energy facilities that amount to hundreds of megawatts of clean power, while the electric cooperatives are also buying inexpensive wind power from right across the border.
Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO), which burns coal at its Arkansas-based Flint Creek and Turk plants, is a key part of the Wind Catcher wind energy project that will be the second-largest wind farm in the entire world, providing significant power for Arkansas and SWEPCO customers in other states. Utility-scale solar facilities in Arkansas are popping up in places like Stuttgart, Camden, Clarksville, North Little Rock and Springdale, with more on the drawing board.
In other words: historically coal-heavy utilities right here in Arkansas are not only moving toward clean energy, they are enthusiastically embracing it. Clean energy makes sense in terms of our health, our environment and — increasingly — economics. What’s the fastest-growing job industry in the United States right now? Solar power.
Cities are on the move as well. For example, more than 60 cities have joined the Sierra Club’s “Ready For 100” campaign and announced plans to get all of their power from clean energy. One of those cities is Fayetteville. Under the leadership of Mayor Lioneld Jordan, the Fayetteville City Council overwhelmingly passed its Energy Action Plan on Jan. 2, and is on its way toward becoming the cleanest city in the state.
All too rarely do we find ourselves in a situation where utilities, environmental groups, industry and dozens of mayors are in agreement. The support of clean solar and wind energy — and a transition away from coal — is one of those times. Solar and wind energy means good-paying jobs, healthier citizens and a cleaner environment.
Clean energy is no longer just a mythical thing of the future. It’s here, and it’s booming. The Sierra Club respectfully invites President Trump to get on board the clean energy train or, at a minimum, get out of the way.
Editor’s note: Glen Hooks is executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the environmental nonprofit Sierra Club. The opinions expressed are those of the author.