Coal was fuel of Industrial Revolution but it’s not future

The good thing about coal, unlike some other natural resources, is that we don’t have to fight wars halfway across the world to get it.

Mountains of coal can be found right here within our own country’s borders, and we’ve got the infrastructure in place to mine it, ship it and use it to provide energy to our homes, schools and businesses.

Over the years, scientists and engineers have developed methods to burn the black, sooty fossil fuel in a cleaner and more efficient way, which is another positive.

But the problem with coal-fired power plants is that they’re just still too dirty, and the negatives surrounding this industry are simply too many to justify supporting the continued burning of coal for energy going forward.

A clear example of that paradigm shift is the shuttering of the Presque Isle Power Plant in Marquette.

We just wrapped up a series on the PIPP’s closure where we examined the plant’s history, the projected environmental impacts of that coal-fired facility being replaced by natural gas-fueled generation, as well as the economic impact communities are facing with diminished tax revenue and the loss of jobs.

We’ve known this closure was coming for a long time, but whether we’ve all fully prepared for it will be determined in the coming months and years, particularly with how that property is cleaned up and whether municipalities allow the lost taxes to hamstring their operations in ways that may impact residents.

For now, we’ve been assured that this process will go smoothly, but remediating that property will certainly be quite the job. The plant is located near Presque Isle, one of Marquette’s “crown jewels,” and returning that property to a usable state for new development is something the folks at city hall will likely keep a close eye on. We will too.

The cuts to local jobs and taxes are unfortunate circumstances, but investing in the coal industry doesn’t make sense anymore, and it doesn’t appear to be the direction our country is headed.

The future, at least where the power industry is concerned, is in natural gas.

Now that natural gas is more readily available and most of us are becoming more environmentally conscious, the coal industry is fading away into blackness.

Natural gas isn’t a new fuel that was just discovered, but it’s cleaner than coal and a lot of the infrastructure and resources to support the industry are in place.

Business-wise, the transition from coal to natural gas makes sense.

However, it seems that shift should eventually lead to renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and water, as natural gas someday, too, may be seen as too dirty, too expensive or too difficult to access and use.

Simple economics will tell you that prices will rise as demand for natural gas becomes greater, and depleting the easy-to-reach sources of the fossil fuel will make the process less feasible and potentially more expensive. Certainly, technology may make capturing the gas elsewhere more practical, but implementing that on a widespread scale will also require money, time and considerable effort.

On the other hand, the renewable energy options each have their own sets of challenges that must be overcome.

For now, the big building along Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette near Presque Isle is offline. Meanwhile, at the southern end of the city, another coal-fired facility stands quietly, as the Marquette Board of Light and Power also indicated its favor of natural gas over coal with the Marquette Energy Center, and, in turn, ceased operations at the Shiras Steam Plant earlier this spring.

More than anything, the shift toward natural gas and away from coal is simply a sign of the times. But it’s just a small step of progress in a lengthy procession toward truly clean energy.