Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Clean Energy “Made in China”?A History of Coal and the Future of American Energy

By Dylan NezajPublished May 6, 2018

Amidst China’s continuing efforts to achieve the status of a global economic superpower, the U.S. federal government is trying reinvigorating the coal industry. In so doing, the U.S. in losing the race to clean energy leadership.

China leads the world in investment in renewable energies, having tripled investments made by the U.S. in 2017. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is working to frame “clean coal" as an environmentally friendly and economically viable energy source of the future, in spite of market trends deeming coal an increasingly costly and inefficient means of energy production. Such action also defies the scientific consensus on climate change, not to mention the will of the vast majority of the American public. In every single congressional district in the U.S. – even those in coal country – a majority of Americans believes that greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants should be reduced.

A study by Stanford University summarizes the factors that have contributed to the decline in coal jobs since the 1970s, and of the coal industry as a whole since 2010. President Trump attributes the industry's decline to the Obama administration’s efforts to curb pollution. However, the Clean Air Act of 1970 probably did more to seal the industry's fate than any other measure. This law, in conjunction with the deregulation of railroads, made it so that older, less-efficient coal plants in the eastern U.S. struggled to compete with more efficient, heavily-automated efficient mines in the west. Also, because hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has made natural gas more economical, an increasing number of coal plants are being retired or reconfigured for natural gas burning. U.S. coal production peaked overall in 2010, though coal employment had already been on a downward trend since production shifted to, and grew in, the more labor-lean west. This demonstrates that most of the decline in coal jobs since the 1970s was due to competition within the American coal industry, which is now losing a battle with cheaper, cleaner natural gas and a growing renewables sector.

While the U.S. has reneged on its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, China is well on its way to overshooting its emissions targets as it transitions away from coal. China understands the need to reduce its reliance on coal, as do India, Brazil, and every other nation still adhering to the Paris Climate Agreement. China, seeking to expand its economic influence into developing regions throughout the world, is capitalizing on the vacuum left by the U.S., catering to increased demand for renewables by accelerating the development of such technologies within its own borders. CNN reports that China already produces two-thirds of the world’s solar panels, and its government plans to invest $367 billion in renewables by 2020, adding 10 million jobs to an industry of 3.5 million. If this trend is not met with sufficient investment by the U.S., it will not be able to compete in a rising market of billions of people as most other nations continue their transition away from a dependence on coal and other fossil fuels to meet their energy needs.

The numbers simply don't support the administration's energy policy. The coal industry employs about 160,000 people. That's a lot of jobs, but it's nowhere near the more than 3 million jobs that clean technology already supports, according to figures provided by the Department of Energy. Furthermore, the share of U.S. energy production accounted for by renewables (including solar, wind, hydro and thermal) is 15 percent and rising, whereas that of coal is 30 percent and falling; the Energy Information Administration estimates that natural gas – which currently accounts for about 34 percent of U.S. electricity production – will only last us about 90 more years. While the administration may claim that its efforts led to a rise in coal exports in 2017, this was largely due to short-term substitution for American exports caused by a hurricane in Australia that reduced its exports of metallurgical coal to…China.

America's coal workers deserve a more promising future. They were integral in fueling America’s rise, and the transition to a green economy will be harder for them than anyone, as coal mining is ingrained in their way of life. We must provide them and their families with real opportunities that repay them for their contributions and enable them to compete in the economy of tomorrow.

A clean energy economy is our future – the world’s future. It is not a matter of if, but when. To deny this fact cripples the U.S.’ competitiveness in the rising clean technology sector and jeopardizes the health of our planet. The federal government must make investments in education and clean energy among its top priorities. China's economic initiative will lead to it usurping the U.S. as a global economic superpower. The U.S., in turn, should compete to retake the title as the global leader in renewable-energy innovation.

Works Cited