On Tuesday, MidAmerican Energy said it would stop burning coal at five generating units in Iowa by 2016. Its settlement with the Sierra Club affects about 673 MW of capacity.
The announcement came a day after President Barack Obama devoted a surprisingly big part of his inaugural speech to the subject of climate change. It is unknown just what his administration will actually do about it.
The MidAmerican settlement suggests that Mike Bloomberg’s money could speak louder than any eventual government policies. That may be only right in any number of people’s eyes; this is still capitalism.
Bloomberg Philanthropies, of course, has given the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign $50 million over four years, and the club has been making hay with it in its campaign to retire one-third of the US coal fleet by 2020. As the campaign’s website says, 129 retired, 393 to go.
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For MidAmerican Energy, the Iowa utility, the Sierra Club settlement sort of fits with the company’s general posture. Although it isn’t a famously “liberal” utility leader, it generates well under half its power from coal and around 30% from wind power. It has the biggest wind power fleet, 2,300 MW, of any regulated utility.
And of course it’s owned ultimately by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Parent MidAmerican Energy Holdings also owns the PacifiCorp utility farther west, and the Sierra Club expressed hope that it could make progress with that company as well (PacifiCorp’s power comes about 58% from coal) and with Buffett’s BNSF railroad, which hauls a lot of coal.
It still is not apparent what the Obama administration will undertake in its second term with respect to climate change, beyond possibly beefing up energy efficiency standards and giving more incentives to research and renewable energy. If Congress will allow it. And the Environmental Protection Agency is still fuzzy about intentions for regulating carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, which would (will?) be a big, clunky gorilla to manage in this economy and in the face of those who worry about power system reliability.
The Sierra Club is not taking anything for granted. Earlier in January, it launched the Obama Climate and Clean Energy Legacy Campaign, to lean harder on the president. Between now and Earth Day (April 22), there will be events across the country, including a February 17 Washington rally that club Executive Director Michael Brune says in his blog will be “the largest climate rally in American history.”
But is it possible that Bloomberg’s money really will be the force to reckon with? Not that government policy can’t play a role. If the government continues holding tough coal-plant regulation out in front of the industry as a near-future likelihood, the Sierra Club may have what it needs for success.