Real-Life Heroes - The Years Project

Real-Life Heroes

By Mary Anne Hitt

Making coal power a thing of the past

Anna Jane Joyner is one of the real-life climate heroes who are making the impossible possible, moving their communities beyond coal and proving that regular people working together can turn the corner on climate change.

I’ll never forget the beautiful Blue Ridge summer day when Anna Jane, Ian Somerhalder, and I rallied the crowd to retire the Asheville, NC, coal plant and replace it with clean energy, like wind and solar. The Asheville coal plant is one of 522 aging coal-fired power plants nationwide that, together, make up this country’s biggest source of carbon pollution. Thanks to the efforts of regular people like Anna Jane, one out of every three of those coal plants is now slated for retirement, and the U.S. is poised to usher in the clean energy era and lead the world in tackling climate disruption.


Anna Jane and I both got involved in this work for similar reasons — we’re mountain girls who care about our families and the future. As women with close ties to Appalachia, we wanted to stop coal companies from blowing up our region’s purple mountains majesty for coal — a horrifying type of mining called mountaintop removal.

Along the way, we’ve learned that coal plants are the number one source of the carbon pollution that’s throwing the climate into chaos. They’re also our biggest source of sulfur pollution that causes tens of thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks and heart attacks every year, and of mercury pollution that every pregnant woman in America is warned about by her doctor, because exposure in the womb puts babies at risk of lifelong developmental problems like lowered IQ. After the coal is burned, the waste left behind is the number one source of pollution fouling our nation’s rivers and streams with toxins like mercury, lead, and arsenic.

That’s why we must move America beyond coal to clean energy. And we’re doing it.


Together, we’ve proven that when we take on the coal industry, we can win. With 162 coal plants announced for retirement to date , and 182 new coal plants blocked from ever breaking ground, we’v seen U.S. carbon pollution levels reach their lowest level in two decades. Thousands of lives have been saved, and clean energy is on the rise, with wind power the biggest source of new U.S. energy in 2012. As U.S. coal use declines, we also want to ensure that our country doesn’t send its carbon emissions overseas, so we’re working to block coal company schemes to increase coal exports.

America’s energy future is up for grabs, and the Beyond Coal campaign intends to seize it. I was honored to be named one of the 10 most influential people of 2013 by the industry publication SNL Energy, a recognition that ranked our campaign among the most significant forces shaping the energy sector in the U.S., along with the EPA, the U.S. Senate, and big energy companies of all stripes. Above all, it was a testament to the hard work of over 100 partner organizations and thousands of regular people, just like Anna Jane.

I’ll never forget the first time I stood at the edge of a mountaintop removal site and felt so profoundly the permanence of the loss of a mountain — Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., calls it an intergenerational theft. I live in West Virginia, and my daughter is an 11th-generation West Virginian. I can do a lot of things for her, but I can never put back the 500+ mountains we have lost.


Now, all of our sons and daughters are facing the loss of something this fundamental — our climate. As the Years of Living Dangerously series so powerfully demonstrates, climate disruption is no longer just something that will happen in the future. It’s happening now, to our families. Putting this carbon into the atmosphere and taking a wrecking ball to our climate is like blowing up a mountain. Once we’ve done it, it’s virtually impossible to put the pieces back together again.

Thankfully, we have a strategy to turn the corner on climate change, by moving beyond coal — and we’re doing it. Once our kids are adults, it will be too late. We are the last generation of people who can stop climate change. I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and tell her that we did.

We have the movement, we have the moment, and we have the opportunity. It’s time to move America beyond coal. Join us.

Check out some more great energy resources here:

Existing coal victory tracker

New coal tracker

Coal 101