Power Up

A Coal Miner’s Daughter & the End of Fossil Fuels

In a world built by one kind of energy, it's high time that we were bound for another

11 min read

An illustration of a large coal mine and surrounding complex of supporting buildings and machines.
Image credit: xpe // CC BY 3.0

Thursday is trivia night. At a pub in Santa Monica with beer-sticky floors and a few pool tables in the back, a woman wearing knee socks–no matter the season–sets up behind a microphone with a stack of questions. They’re a mix of academia and pop culture, old and new, and the prize at night’s end for earning the most points is $25 and a good dose of ego.

A few months ago, I was there with friends–more specifically, a doctor, a television writer, a marketing executive, and a banker. I’m a writer–and a coal miner’s daughter. (At least, that’s how an ex-boyfriend once referred to me. He obviously took a few liberties–as my dad was an executive, not a miner–but I think he thought it sounded quaint.) By all accounts, it was a well-educated group.

On this particular night a few Thursdays back, heading into the final round of questions, we were in the lead. We were just 10 blanks away from some cold, hard cash we’d add to our group “travel fund.” (We like to imagine that we’ll stay friends forever and win so many rounds of trivia that one day the prize money will sponsor a grand trip. Please don’t do the math. Just believe.)

Answering the last question was a collective effort: What are the top 10 sources of power generation in the United States? And, for double or nothing, circle the one with the biggest market share.

Oil. Natural gas. Coal. Nuclear. Wind. Solar. Hydro. Geothermal. Biomass. Good old-fashioned wood. That was our list.

And for two times the points and the win? It was oil, said the doctor. It could be nuclear, argued the T.V. writer. Renewables were on the rise, thought the marketing executive.

It was coal–wasn’t it?–I asked sheepishly. No chance, they argued. Coal was a bygone fossil fuel, a dirty energy source of America’s industrial past. If that wasn’t what they said precisely, it’s what I figured they were thinking. And while my family has no long generational ties to the business of coal mining, I’m the liberal product of a conservative father who spent his career working in “natural resources”. That’s a name for the field that makes fossil fuels sound prettier than they are, given that when we burn them for energy they emit loads of carbon into the atmosphere.

It was hard to grasp the impact of that as a kid. I remember riding the train into the city with him on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. I must have been only nine or 10. His office was sparse, with a phone and a computer and a nice view from the 30th floor to the streets below. He had tried to explain his job–industry forecasting, scoping when and what to mine, and brokering deals to sell the rights to do it on company-owned land in tiny towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Over the years, I hadn’t asked much more about his career or the field as a whole. Even so, despite the passage of President Obama’s Clean Air Act and news of increased natural gas output from fracking, I was pretty sure coal was still the country’s main squeeze.

We circled oil. The doctor, the TV writer, the males around the table–it was their best guess. They had louder voices.

Turns out, we were wrong. But so, too, was every other team in the bar apparently, because we still won. Though there’s a good chance it was actually a pretty grand loss for us–a generation that will in a few decades’ time find itself in the trenches of climate change, likely wondering why we hadn’t paid a bit more attention to just how we kept the lights on.

Coal miners with carts full of coal.
Image credit: jasonwoodhead23 // CC BY 2.0

The United States generated about 4,093 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2014, 67 percent of which was from fossil fuels. Coal accounted for 39 percent, natural gas for 27 percent, nuclear for 19 percent, hydroelectricity for 6 percent, and other renewables (primarily wind and biomass) for 7 percent. While coal use in the country decreased in 2015 to 34 percent and carbon emissions fell to their lowest annual level since 1995, the world’s biggest single source of climate change still has a sizable chunk of the U.S. energy pie.

Unless you live underground, by now you’ve heard the warnings about the dangers of climate change: severe floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, unpredictable rainfall, and a serious reduction in crop yield. While the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change treats uncertainty very respectfully, and is always sure to present best-case and worst-case scenarios, there’s strong agreement among climatologists that we must keep global temperature increases within 1.5″”4.5° C if we’re going to save the planet.

What scientists have settled on is a new kind of economics: a global carbon budget of 4.4 trillion tonnes for a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to 2°C by 2100. All climate-change predictions are odds-based. The number of if/then inputs are infinite. After the Paris 2015 Climate Change Summit, limiting the increase to 1.5°C became the current goal. If all those figures are confusing, the easiest way to put it is like this: We need to reduce the world’s carbon emissions to zero by the end of this century. Yes, that’s an ambitious goal–one that should inform our current and future behavior.

So, is this actually the end for fossil fuels? Are they finally on a downward trajectory? Or, after 250 years of increasing usage coupled with rapid development around the world, is it reasonable to expect they might flatline or even slow their increase? After that night at trivia, seeing as much of the lifestyle I have come to enjoy is the direct result of how much we use fossil fuels, I decided to find out.

It’s no secret that the Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have happened without fossil fuels. It is the energy density of coal, gas, and oil that gave us the economics of more. That is basically to say that fossil fuels store much more energy in the same amount of space than traditional fuels like wood. At rapid pace, they took us from candlelight to electrified homes, powered steam locomotives carrying the steel that built our cities skyward, and introduced us to ships and cars with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Fossil fuels even took man to the Moon. Whether or not you believe that they’re prerequisites for a modern society, today they power 80 percent of our global energy needs.

That being said, the current issue of global warming is less about how we got here and more about the idea of global citizenship. Looking backwards, as I see it, matters for two reasons: First, we’ve got a pretty good sense that merely telling people to use less energy isn’t going to work. As a political people, we’re generally only interested in a green message when it continues to encourage sustainable growth. No growth or a stagnated economic model isn’t an option. And that’s especially true in places like Brazil and Indonesia–where the West has long outsourced its manufacturing needs, thereby increasing energy demands. Similarly, in India and Africa politicians are doing their part to promote renewable energy sources but abundant coal and oil reserves are terribly tempting when it comes to getting millions of their citizens access to electricity that the rest of the developed world already enjoys.

We aren’t running out of fossil fuels. Supply and demand isn’t the problem. According to a U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic holds about one-third of the world’s still untapped natural gas and 13 percent of our undiscovered oil. And yet, with pre-industrial temperatures across the globe nearly 1°C [1.8°F] cooler than they are today, climate experts warn that to save the planet we must leave somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of those known natural resource reserves in the ground.

Which brings me to the second reason we can’t forget the progress of the Industrial Revolution. The wealth we’ve gained from burning fossil fuels without regard for consequence, especially in the Western world, should inform our strategy and heavy investment in renewable energy sources that promote economic growth elsewhere and at home. Essentially, we should be prepared to offer the developing world significant financial assistance to supplement the cost of its rising energy needs if we expect fossil fuel usage to decline in the next few decades.

An open coal mine.
Image credit: Jennifer Woodward Maderazo // CC BY 2.0

Despite the complexity of banding together unequal players in a global scheme to halt atmospheric damage, change is afoot everywhere. U.S. coal mining across 25 of the 50 states reached its highest historical output eight years ago. Since then, both production and consumption have been in decline. The EPA estimates that coal consumption decreased by 12 percent in 2015 and forecasts it to flatline over 2016 and 2017, as natural gas prices are set to increase while renewable options become more affordable. As retrofitting older plants with the controls necessary to meet clean regulations enacted under President Obama becomes too expensive, and the EPA finalizes even newer carbon emissions limits and carbon capture specifications, coal companies are declaring bankruptcy and coal-powered plants are making plans to shut down by the hundreds. Last month, the U.S. government announced a moratorium on issuing new mining leases on federal land for the next three years–though this won’t affect the 20 years’ worth of production already underway.

A significant investment in greener technology also means the prices of wind and solar have fallen (solar panels cost 80 percent less now than they did in 2008), and cheap natural gas reserves opened in the early 2000s are making coal a bad investment–at least in the United States. While fossil fuels are all pollutants, coal is empirically the worst of them, emitting twice as much carbon as natural gas. Current trends indicate that fracking will increase availability and usage of natural shale gas over the next few decades as we look to reduce our carbon footprint, maintain energy independence, and bridge the gap to technologically efficient and more affordable renewables.

Meanwhile, the world stage better make room for China. The country, known for its thick city smog and unstoppable 10-percent economic growth year over year (until just recently), is the world’s largest consumer of energy and emitter of greenhouse gases. It accounted for 90 percent of the world’s increased use of coal over the last 25 years and is responsible for more than half of the increase in global emissions in the last 10 years. All this hasn’t been without consequence–the pollution of soil, air, and water has since reached critical levels in the country. Lung cancer deaths in China have quadrupled in the last 30 years. In the north, where extremely cold winters rely on robust coal-burning, air pollution is linked to a 5.5-year decrease in life expectancy. When levels of tiny particles known as PM2.5 reached 40 times World Health Organization limits in 2013, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, Xie Zhenhua, told the Shanghai Daily that pollution had “severely affected the mental and physical health of the Chinese people.” He added that the root cause was “the use of fossil fuels.”

The air in cities like Beijing is so heavy with industrial smog that China’s leaders declared a “war on pollution” in 2014. Since then, watching the country wake up to its responsibilities and begin to lead by example in the transition to renewable energy is heartening. It’s amazing, frankly. Ever since Premier Xi Jinping took over for his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, we’ve seen a full U-turn in the country’s willingness to shoulder the burden of reducing emissions, in stride with the United States.

The last major attempt to put together an agreement was in 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Regarded largely as a complete failure, bickering between developed and developing nations and an openly obstinate China blocked any meaningful progress. Today the country wants a primary seat at the “global resource governance” table–a successful fight against climate change can’t happen without it. And money surely talks: China is now the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, spending $110.5 billion last year alone. The United States ranked second with an investment of $56 billion.

The authors of a January 2016 joint report by China’s Development Research Center of the State Council and Chatham House’s Royal Institute of International Affairs believe that as China’s economy slows and settles into a “new normal,” the country will implement new development models to ensure its future as an “ecological civilization.” Surprisingly, this was one of the goals set forth at the Communist Party’s 17th Congress in 2007. Anticipating a stagnation in its rapid rate of growth years ago, China has announced that its emissions will peak as soon as possible before 2030 as it shifts away from manufacturing to a more service-based economy.

A coal engine at sunset.
Image credit: DncnH // CC BY 2.0

Before the Paris Climate Change Conference this past December, 156 country’s representatives presented “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” with pledges for reducing their emissions (there’s a great site that tracks them here), with accountability beginning in 2020. If adhered to, the combined commitments from countries representing 94 percent of global emissions estimate a 2.7°C temperature increase by 2100. This is obviously much higher than the 1.5°C goal mentioned earlier, though it’s at least realistic given current resources. Countries will hope to increase their contributions in the future as it becomes politically and technologically easier to do so.

So, returning to the key question at hand, is it fair to say this the beginning of the end for fossil fuels? I think so. At least, we’re heading that way. Though decarbonizing the power sector by as early as mid-century will require a gargantuan global effort, policymakers from nearly every country seem willing. In the next 15 years, we’re due for a wave of massive investment in renewable infrastructure that is robust enough to change the trajectory of energy generation far into the future.

This 15-year period is our now-or-never window. It’s where we’ll get our answer to the fate of fossil fuels. Most models for assessing climate change agree that our most significant and immediate opportunity for curbing CO2 emissions will come from amendments to the electricity-generation sector first, then other energy sectors more slowly thereafter. Still, global energy demand is on pace to rise to anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of its current usage. That means to keep within our climate goals, we’ll need to spend somewhere around US$45 trillion on low-carbon technology. The upfront costs will be staggering; they’ll be hard to swallow for someone like my dad. But they will represent a huge financial opportunity, too–renewables stand to make a lot of people very rich.

If this investment happens over the next decade, we should see a fossil-fuel use begin to fall in the majority of countries–even if it first rises to a peak in the near term. That waiting for the turnaround feels scary, though. At least to me. I’m worried we can’t change course fast enough. Others are more hopeful. Some big thinkers even predict that exponential growth rates in solar power will satisfy the whole world’s energy needs in just 16 years. In his 2016 Annual Letter, specifically addressed to high school students, Bill Gates wrote: “Within the next 15 years–and especially if young people get involved–I expect the world will discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world.”

While those are ambitious predictions, last year set records for global spending on clean energy, topping out at $329 billion. The IEA’s 2013 World Energy Outlook noted that the technical potential for renewable energy as far greater than current human use, and studies suggest it could supply 95 percent of global energy demand by 2050 at relatively low net cost. Renewables can be built fast and capacity can scale quickly, as evidenced particularly by the growth of wind farms in Mexico and Uruguay as the cheapest source of new power. The cost-profile of renewables is changing–fast.

And yet, divesting from fossil fuel usage as quickly as I’ve sketched out isn’t inevitable. Not even close. Again, it will require deliberate effort and forethought. While China is on the right path, India’s energy use has close to doubled since 2000–much of it generated by coal imports. While the country can’t seem to get its proverbial hands on enough accessible, low-cost energy, it can’t ignore its cities worsening air quality lest it find itself in a situation similar to China in the next 10 to 15 years. With 300 million people living in the dark, India won’t hold back on electrification or uplifting their impoverished by whatever means necessary. And we can’t expect that, especially as a favor to the developed nations primarily responsible for our climate trauma. Bill Gates said it most plainly: “When you say to India, “Hey don’t use your coal, use something that is substantially more expensive,” you’re asking them to make a trade-off “¦ If they develop with coal, they still will have emitted less per person by a factor of four than we have over the last 100 years.”

Even the United States is seeing blockades. Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to hear lawsuits against its constitutionality; the plan requires that states submit compliance plans in line with reducing harmful emissions by one-third by 2030 (as compared to 2005 levels) by closing hundreds more coal-powered plants in favor of wind and solar production. It was a 5″”4 vote, with the Court’s (then) five conservative justices (Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas) in favor and its four liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor) against. The ruling was a blow to the EPA. But the recent death of Justice Scalia changes the landscape yet again should President Obama appoint a liberal replacement before he departs office.

When I saw news of the Supreme Court stay, disgruntled, I passed it along to my trivia teammates. I’ll probably do the same every time I hear about how India is, at least partially, electrifying its blackout-prone cities with solar panels to capitalize on its 300 days of sunshine each year, or how a Swedish city is using its excess heat to keep it cool. It matters. Every little bit of it.

In a certain light, fossil fuels are a true marvel. They gave us so much. But it took a pub quiz for me to realize that while we still live in a world built by one kind of energy, it’s high time that we’re bound for another.


How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Power Up section, which looks at the future of electricity and energy. Click the logo to read more.