Martelle: Despite ‘burn, burn, burn’ policies, renewable energy capacity is outpacing coal

You probably didn't notice, but April marked a threshold for the nation. For the first time, our capacity for creating electricity from renewable sources crept past that for coal.

Yes, that's a good thing. Not good enough, mind you, to save us from the worst effects of climate change from global warming, but it's further evidence that we're at least moving in the right direction.

And that comes despite President Donald Trump's inane insistence that the nation drill more, burn more and export more fossil fuels - including his doubled-down promises to single-handedly save the American coal industry.

Luckily, that's not happening, despite the president's reckless promises. Domestic coal production and use have dropped to their lowest levels in four decades, even though the economy is more than twice the size it was 40 years ago. And more coal-fired power plants have shut down so far during the Trump presidency than through all eight years of the Obama administration.

The culprit is the market. Coal, by far the most polluting of the major fossil fuels, is much more expensive than natural gas or renewable sources such as solar and wind, in part because of necessary anti-emissions regulations but mostly because alternative energy sources are coming down in price as the industry expands.

Those dropping prices led the Tennessee Valley Authority in February to order the shutdown of two coal-fired plants that Trump had urged it to continue operating. As it was, then-TVA Chief Executive Bill Johnson said the plants had only been used intermittently in recent years, and shutting them down would save ratepayers $320 million.

“It is not about coal. This decision is about economics,” Johnson said. “It's about keeping rates as low as feasible.”

So Trump, with his focus on increasing coal production and coal-generated power, wants consumers to pay more to prop up a dying industry, just because he likes the politics of it.

He has curried support from coal miners and the communities that rely on the industry by emphasizing exports, which have indeed helped offset the domestic drop-off in use and helped keep coal employment levels steady at a little over 50,000 jobs.

But experts suspect those levels will drop soon as more international sources increase production of coal. Still, global coal use has gone up in recent years as developing countries - many of them aided by China - bring coal plants online.

That's a global threat that the world needs to confront. But don't expect Trump to lead that necessary charge.

Scott Martelle is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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