Guest Columnist

Beyond Coal: Pandemic points to the need for clean energy

Sometimes change is slow, but when it happens it is not linear or gradual. We take big jumps.

Steel balls used to mill coal are set aside to be used for scrap metal at Alliant Energy's Prairie Creek generation plan
Steel balls used to mill coal are set aside to be used for scrap metal at Alliant Energy's Prairie Creek generation plant in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. The plant's No. 4 turbine is being converted to burn natural gas instead of coal. In Alliant's three remaining coal-powered turbines, the mineral is milled into a fine powder before it is burned, which increases energy efficiency. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Our current pandemic places us all in a moment of vulnerability. How our leaders, both in government and industry, respond to this moment will have long impacts. Our response to one crisis must not fuel another. We must build back better: cleaner, healthier, and more resilient.

That’s why no future legislative package in Congress should be used to bailout corporate polluters like fossil fuel industry CEOs — who are already receiving enormous government subsidies and facing financial troubles a decade in the making.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, renewable energy was one of America’s fastest growing industries. Last year the two fastest growing jobs in the US were wind technician and solar installer. Millions of trade skill workers like electricians, roofers, plumbers, welders, HVAC, and others work to improve energy efficiency around the country. Together the clean energy sector employed more U.S. workers than retail stores, and more than hotels, motels, and the coal and oil industries combined.

In March the clean energy sector lost more than 147,000 jobs nationwide, then in April the number tripled. Job losses will continue to increase. The COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in a 17 percent drop in clean energy employment nationally with a more than 10 percent drop in Iowa.

This is a critical moment for our clean energy transition. Sometimes change is slow, but when it happens it is not linear or gradual. We take big jumps. A transition to clean energy and retirement of existing coal plants cannot only offer a path to economic recovery, but also improves the quality of our air and thereby public health outcomes.

A study released by Harvard last month showed tiny increases in air pollution increased the U.S. fatality rate from coronavirus by 15%. And in Europe, Italian scientists found a correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and deaths from coronavirus. Our health and the quality of the air and water around us are intertwined. Coal power plants are leading sources of these pollutants putting neighboring communities at risk. Iowa is no exception. Our top industrial sources of air pollution are nearly all coal plants.

We cannot afford to let clean energy in our country backslide, especially when it could not be more clear fossil fuels have no place in our future. By supporting clean energy, people can return to work when our economy reopens through construction projects big and small. They could range from major transmission expansion projects and expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure to home weatherizations and electric heat pump installations. Plus Iowa can expand solar with minimal changes and connections to our current transmission system.

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The progress we are making in shifting away from fossil fuels will be lost without immediate government intervention and support. Congress should be doing everything it can to ensure the clean energy sector remains healthy and job losses are stemmed so we are in a position to build back better. The best investment we can make today is in clean energy infrastructure to build healthier, stronger, more resilient communities for the long-term.

Katie Rock is campaign representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign in Iowa.

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