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August 27, 2012

As the Climate Warms, U.S. Hits 120 Coal Plants Heading to Retirement

Coal pile

Earlier this month I was invited to hear the latest on climate science from one of my heroes, Dr. Jim Hansen at NASA. He methodically showed that in the past decade the number of extreme weather episodes could only be explained by a warming planet. At this point, we need swift action to cut carbon pollution in order to keep temperature increases below a little more than 1 degree centigrade, and avoid ever-increasing climate disruption. He reaffirmed that stopping burning coal and leaving it underground is critical for preventing runaway global warming. Hansen's analyses did not even include the heat waves, wildfires, and tornadoes of 2012's crazy weather.

Against this backdrop, Americans from all backgrounds are banding together to act. City by city and state by state, we are making progress. Americans are working together to phase out the dirtiest fuel -- coal -- and we continue to rack up victory after victory.    

In the past month our Coal Plant Countdown ticker jumped from 114 coal plants retired or announced to retire to 120, all the result of outstanding grassroots activism in places not typically associated with being on the vanguard of solving climate disruption.

On August 6, the Black Hills Corporation announced the retirement of three coal plants. The next day, Rochester Public Utilities announced plans to retire the oldest coal plant in Minnesota -- Silver Lake -- by the end of 2015.

We also chalked up victories with decisions to retire the Gadsden coal plant in Alabama and the Carbon coal plant in Utah, an enormous coal plant I have driven by many times when visiting that state's iconic national parks.

These six retirements show the continued momentum of the campaign to move Beyond Coal. They also also bring the total megawatts of dirty coal retired since 2010 to 48,167 MW, more than 14 percent of the country's 2010 installed coal capacity. Interestingly, this past month we also celebrated the milestone of American wind power being now responsible for more than 50,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity -- enough power for nearly 13 million American homes. In fact, the amount of wind power in the country has doubled from just four years ago, making it one of the fastest growing energy sectors today.

These victories are happening because even in such traditionally coal-friendly places as Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming and Alabama, coal no longer makes any economic or environmental sense.  The cost of coal continues to increase, communities are demanding an end to coal's pollution, and clean energy has become far more attractive and affordable.

 For example, in Minnesota, the Silver Lake coal plant faced pressure to retire both for spewing dirty soot and toxic mercury into Rochester’s air and for failing to meet federal clean air health safeguards. Meanwhile, the plant had become too expensive to operate and was running at reduced capacity due to abundant wind power and local advances in helping businesses and residences reduce their energy use. Transitioning this plant will save ratepayers money, make the community healthier, and pave the way for even more clean energy in the state.

Similarly, the Wyoming and South Dakota coal plant retirements will help protect local families and communities from the toxic threats of burning coal. They will also hasten the already impressive wind energy growth in these states.

These victories, and the many that came before, are the product of years of advocacy by millions of Americans. Americans want cleaner air and a future fueled by clean and affordable energy. And these victories flow from an unprecedented collaboration among more than a hundred organizations nationwide, all united in their goal to secure the rapid phase-out of coal. With dirty, outdated coal-fired power plants no longer competitive or economical, the only option is to phase out of coal, retire plants, and engage with workers and communities to transition toward cleaner power.

If we do this, we will have a fighting chance to leave a planet where we have cooled the climate and left our children and grandchildren with a stable and healthy planet. I hope you will join us in this urgent and audacious campaign.  

-- Bruce Nilles, Senior Campaign Director, Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign

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