For centuries mankind has evolved into the technologically savvy persons that we are today. With every step of progress, like sword to firearm or horse and plow to tractor, the advances of the past are replaced with new ones along the way. This shift from one thing to the next are seen as the end of eras and births of new ones. But what happens to the societies whose livelihoods are built upon the technologies that are being replaced?
This century has been marked with technology progressing at rapid paces as new advances replacing old ones faster than mankind has ever seen before. One of the major pushes is something that controls all the other technologies we have come to rely on every second of every day. Electricity. Our society demands more and more electricity to power an ever-growing hunger for technology. For the past 100 years, this electricity has mainly been supplied by coal-fired plants around our nation creating and storing energy to power an industrialized nation. However, with the ever-growing concern for our planet and the rise of data showing a concern with one day running out of fossil fuels, the push to begin developing and utilizing renewable energy has taken our energy production down a new path.
With these new renewable energy sources, questions about their economic contributions arise as they are beginning to phase out many “traditional” energy producers such as coal plants that employ hundreds and oftentimes support entire local economies. So where does this leave these communities and citizens and can these new industries, specifically wind, bring about as much economic stability? Despite the government push to renewable energy, not much research has been conducted on these “dying” communities that once thrived. Not only is there not much data from the Texas area, but even areas of the country where coal mines have been steadily closing for decades there are not many studies written. With the information I have been able to collect, I hope to understand how plant closure affect local economies, if wind energy can have an equal economic impact, and what role the government plays in this shift to renewable energy.
Coal has been a staple energy provider in the United States since the mid-20th century but with many contributing factors in the past two decades, the shift to other energy generators has caused the closure of many coal-fired plants throughout the country. In Texas alone, 2018 brought the closure of three of five plants for Luminant, Texas’ largest power generator (Mosier, 2017). The largest of these three plants, Sandow outside Austin, Texas employs more than 450 people and contributes millions in tax revenue for the city of Rockdale. The continued push to alternative energy like natural gas, wind and solar, while usually seen as a positive effect from an environmental standpoint, can have a negative economic and social impact for these communities. A study conducted by Olson-Hazboun (2018) found that many fossil fuel dependent communities continue to be supportive of extractive industries as they have economic vulnerability due to location isolation and lack of economic diversity causing them to feel threatened by the “societal shift toward clean energy” (p. 367).
Socially these citizens feel threatened as a multi-generation identity is stripped away when closures occur and careers in coal mining or energy production disappear. Olson-Hazboun (2018) discussed these historical ties to communities has been with industries such a coal for decades and perceptions of renewable energy sectors from these citizens are far from favorable. This threat on their way of life can make residents close-minded to the beneficial possibilities that “renewable energy development [can have] through construction jobs, lease payments to landowners, and increased local tax revenue” (Olson-Hazboun, 2018. p. 367).
The economic challenges faced by communities with loss of employment and tax revenues from coal should be addressed by local and state governments and written plans be created to aid in the transition period. However, the ten cities used in Haggerty, Haggerty, Roemer, and Rose’s (2018) study “had or have access to a dedicated transition fund at the outset of planning” which will cause monetary losses not only be employees losing jobs but also throughout the city where most plants pay millions of dollars in taxes each year (p. 75). These revenues are sometimes the “single largest source of income for local governments” and with the failure to have a plan in place on how to operate without them, communities can become in dire stress financially.
Not only did their study find that most do not address lost revenue, but that less than half discuss remediation of closed facilities as a possible economic development strategy (Haggerty et al., 2018). The remediation of coal-fired plants will be extremely expensive but could possibly generate jobs for those that lost employment when plants closed. From planning stages, to demolition, to, in most coal cases, years of monitoring after demolition, can bring in revenue for local governments (Raimi, 2017). Regardless of the processes needed after closure, cities must address the inevitability that coal plants will continue to close with the low prices of natural gas and the push to renewable energy and without plans in place they will be scrambling to survive financially.
Many especially in Texas look to wind and natural gas as the replacement for traditional coal plants in terms of megawatts of electricity produced and in the employment sector. Natural gas has boomed again in Texas and has created over 100,000 jobs in the gas extraction sector; however, wind is much smaller by employing 80-100 workers during construction and eight to ten over the lifetime of the farm (Hartley, Medlock, Temzelides, & Zhang, 2015; Slattery, Lantz, & Johnson, 2011). A study that looked into the creation of wind farms in four West Texas counties showed that substantial economic impact would occur for these communities “equating to nearly $730 million over the assumed 20-year life cycle of the farms” (Slattery, Lantz, Johnson, & 2011, p. 7930). However, comparing these to traditional coal plants like Sandow that employed 450 and paid more than $14 million in taxes per year, these numbers seem to not be comparable (Mosier, 2017). The benefit of creating industry in rural, West Texas towns in substantial in that before these wind farms, little to no industry existed in these areas, but most workers for these construction projects are brought in from outside locations during construction and leave after the job is completed (Slattery, Lantz, & Johnson, 2011).
The driving factor behind this push from coal to renewable energy has been an environmental one. While there is no argument that coal is the powerhouse producer far out producing renewables like wind. The largest Texas Luminant plant, Martin Creek, still left in operation generates 2,250 mega watts compared to the largest wind farm in Texas, Roscoe Wind Farm, which can only generate around 800 mega watts (Martin Lake Power Plant, n.d.; EC&R, 2009). Wind has long been criticized as not being a viable source to totally rely all energy needs on and as the above numbers show wind lacks the energy production needed to be completely dependent on it. A study focusing on the reduction of coal plants and the addition of wind energy it concluded that “wind power is a variable and intermittent electricity source, it requires that conventional generators be available to provide balancing services” (Rahmani, Jaramillo, & Hug, p. 196). Wind has constraints such as not being able to consistently produce energy to supply the grid with a constant flow and “might not be able to balance the system at peak load events” (Rahmani, Jrarmillo, & Hug, p. 209). These forecasting errors would cause spikes in electricity costs for consumers.
While wind energy generation is unpredictable, one thing it surpasses coal in the emission pollution. Coal has long been deemed the “dirty” energy for the emissions it causes when burned into the air to generate electricity. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heavily researched the affects of coal burning on the environment and human health. In his book, The Silent Epidemic, author Alan Lockwood discusses the negative impacts the coal industry has had on our health and states that “67 hazardous air pollutants in the emissions” from burning coal including “hydrofloric acid, mercury, arsernic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, uranium, and thorium” (Lockwood, p. 12). Lockwood also discusses how these pollutants have been linked to hundreds of different diseases which has increased government created regulations pushing coal burning companies to move to a “clean coal” product (Lockwood, 2012).
The EPA also began an aggressive policy toward coal emission when studies showed the amounts of greenhouse gases coal fired plants emit in the 1990’s contributing to acid rain, which are oxides of nitrogen and oxides of sulfur. “Burning coal to produce electricity is by far the leading source of US sulfur dioxide emissions” (Lockwood, p. 26). Even though legislation, most recently the Clean Power Plan, which aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent, has been passed to help reduce greenhouse gases emitted, coal fired plants still pollute our environment. A study that looked at the comparisons of the emissions of coal-fired plants to wind generation shows that while moving to a renewable such as wind does reduce pollutants, the reduction is not as substantial as once thought. The study conducted by Kaffine, McBee, and Lieskovsky (2013), studied data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) regarding emissions per MWh from coal plants and wind turbines and found that emissions saving are not going to be a constant, because using wind energy relies on a back up from either coal or natural gas generated power. These switches from wind to fossil fuel based power, known as cycling, causes a “rapid ramping of fossil fuel plants to accommodate wind” and is “emissions-intensive” (Kaffine, McBee, & Lieskovsky, p. 157). They concluded that “each MWh of wind generation on average reduced SO2 by 1.277 lbs, NOx by 0.710 lbs, and CO2 by 0.523 tons” (Kaffine, McBee, & Lieskovsky, p. 165). While this number is significant, they also note that with an increase in natural gas plants, these numbers should continue to rise (Kaffine, McBee, & Lieskovsky, 2013).
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