By Doug Struck, Globe Correspondent
Reports from the end of an era keep coming. This year alone, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced eight coal-fired power plants are closing. Georgia Power will shutter 10 units. Three more coal plants in Pennsylvania. Plant closings announced in Indiana. Ohio. Utah, the heart of coal country.
And, of course, the coal-fired Brayton Point (below), in Somerset, Mass., will shut down for good in 2017, its owners announced in October.
The Sierra Club counted 150 coal plant closure announcements since 2010. The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a report this month, puts the numbers at 138 coal plants closed since 2011, 150 more likely in the “near future,” and 329 additional plants it identified as “ripe for retirement.”
Whatever the exact number, the trend is clear. The lights of coal-powered electricity plants are flickering off around the country, victims of cheaper natural gas, growing renewable energy, conservation, and stricter demands to curb climate-changing pollution.
The picture in Massachusetts certainly has changed since the “Filthy Five” coal plants dominated the state’s power production and pumped massive billows of pollution into the air in the 1960s.
Those plants are either closed or limping along. The Mystic plant in Everett switched in 1968 from coal to oil and then to natural gas. Tracking by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative shows the Mount Tom power plant in Holyoke is operating at one-quarter of its level of just four years ago. Salem Harbor will close its coal-fired turbines next May and Brayton Point will follow. The coal-fired Canal Station in Sandwich operated fewer than 10 percent of the hours in 2012 as in 2009.
“Coal in New England is on its way out,” said David Schlissel, an energy consultant in Belmont and a director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “It won’t happen tomorrow. But by the end of this decade or beginning of next, the remaining coal plants are likely to follow the experience of Brayton Point.”
Defenders of the coal industry insist we will regret this. They warn that a lopsided dependence on natural gas puts us at the mercy of price rises. The argument has a smudge of merit. Natural gas prices probably will rise, especially as states begin to get serious about enforcing safety standards to curb methane-leaky pipes and groundwater contamination. There also are questions of whether the pipelines bringing natural gas to New England can provide enough during the peak winter heating months, a shortage that may prompt more pipelines.
“The coal industry is praying bad things happen to the gas industry,” said Schlissel.
But the answer to these arguments is not to go back to an archaic practice of burning more black rocks, a process that is baking the planet. The answer is to push faster to tap the limitless energy from the sun, wind, sea or the heat in the ground.
The coal industry also rather peevishly says it will sell its coal to China or other energy-hungry nations if we don’t use it here. Perhaps. And that will be a disaster, sending carbon dioxide levels higher even than now, the highest in 2 million years. The fast-warming planet following that rise may not be an accommodating place for millions or even billions of its inhabitants.
With signs of climate change abounding, the coal industry’s desperation to turn back the clock is no more realistic than its cynical Orwellian slogan proclaiming this the era of “clean coal.”