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Coal is America’s primary source of electricity




To the Editor:

Americans watching the recent presidential candidate debates no doubt noticed that virtually every commercial break prominently featured a glossy advertisement touting coal as America’s primary source of electricity. These ads are sponsored by Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), which turns out to be a front group funded by the coal industry with a $30 million annual allocation. ABEC Executive Director Joe Lucas reports that these commercials launched phase one of a $7 million, three-month national ad campaign designed to firmly underscore America’s tremendous reliance on coal “to keep the lights on.” Phase two will promote clean coal technology as the most prudent solution for meeting the nation’s future power demands.

The coal industry is now making appeals directly to the general public for several reasons. Elections are not far off and each candidate will have to lay out an energy strategy for the electorate. In addition, coal-fired power has experienced major setbacks that have battered its reputation over the past several months. Pacific Corp., a West Coast utility, just announced that it will not consider any new coalfired capacity for the next decade. The state of Kansas – not California or Oregon – rejected licensure approval for two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants citing air quality and emissions concerns.

Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma have all rejected coal-fired power plant permits this past year. In all, some 22 coal-fired power plants have been rejected or put on hold because of significant uncertainties regarding the future regulatory framework for emissions (particularly CO2) in a world increasingly nervous about the climate change.

The utilities know that more stringent emission regulations are inevitable. In order to accurately project the cost of power for themselves and the price of power for their ratepayers, the utilities must know in precise detail what the new regulatory guidelines will be for both new and old coal-fired capacity. Will it be a direct tax on CO2 emissions? A cap and trade system? Carbon sequestratrion mandated for new coal-fired plants? Will there be exemptions and grandfather clause waivers? The answers will probably be coming from the next presidential administration.

Much to the delight of the fossil fuel industry, the environmental “green lobbies” are pushing almost exclusively for renewable sources of power like wind and solar. As the price of coal-generated power goes up, these renewable power sources begin to look more cost competitive. Many economists suggest that if the market price of coal actually reflected the true cost of coal-based power with all its uncosted externalities factored into the market price (such as air pollution, water quality degradation, health care costs, etc.) renewables are actually cheaper per kw/hour as sources as power. However, the coal industry clearly understands the crucial difference between base load power and peak load power. Most environmentalists do not.

Renewables like wind and solar are unable at this time to supply base load power and therefore do not displace any coal-fired base load capacity. Base load power is what coalfired power plants produce. In fact, the coal industry is actually looking to “green up” its image by investing in wind and solar projects, precisely because these sources of power pose no threat to coal-generated base load electricity.

Base load power is that rock solid reliable power which is counted on 24/7, 365 days a year to keep the power grid energized to some established threshold. Peak load power is brought on line when grid managers see or project that the demand for power by consumers will approach the supply provided by the utility companies. If power demand ever gets close to or exceeds power supply, high voltage “breakers” trip and the electrical grid begins to shut down in a cascading series of blackouts. It’s just like overloading a circuit at home and blowing a fuse. Renewable energy built on wind and solar are intermittent sources of power that do not meet the high standard of reliability required by base load power.

With the development of storage capacity, wind and solar will hold great promise for providing peak load power, but east of the Mississippi River wind and solar will never constitute base load power because of the intermittent nature of sun and wind. In the extreme American southwest, solar with storage may someday be integrated into base load power.

What the coal industry and ABEC really fear is the “N” word – nuclear. Nuclear power is currently experiencing a renaissance. The nuclear industry is now touting itself as the clean, safe, reliable power source for the future. Nuclear plants produce no greenhouse gases during the power generation cycle – only steam. The industry is now busy showcasing advanced third-generation reactor designs and fourth-generation concepts.

Promoted as much less complicated and easier to operate, the latest reactor designs are both significantly safer and cost competitive with clean coal. The Fast Neutron Reactor recycles its uranium fuel, cutting down impressively on waste. Integral Fast Reactors also minimize fuel consumption and are vastly more efficient that the second-generation reactors currently on line. Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors produce more fuel than they consume, but the end product is plutonium.

Westinghouse is promoting its AP100 Reactor, which it advertises as comparatively low in cost, because it is easier to manufacture, and is designed to plug into a modular type of nuclear facility. Modular plants are much less expensive and more quickly constructed. When the milling and enriching of raw uranium into fuel is done with nuclear power (as the industry proposes), the carbon footprint of the nuclear industry is orders of magnitude smaller than clean coalgenerated power.

The federal framework for loan guarantees, subsidies, carbon emission standards and tax relief will determine who will be in the energy production game, and to what extent. The utilities are simply waiting for the rule book to come down from the feds. In the meantime, corporate giants are fighting a titanic battle for favorable position with legislators.

The new ad campaign sponsored by ABEC reveals the coal industry’s nervousness about its precarious position in an increasingly carbon-sensitive energy market. Everyone is looking for subsidies, loan guarantees, and tax relief. That includes coal, nuclear, wind, solar, and hydroelectric. The question is, who will the American taxpayer subsidize? Will it be the industry best suited for the job, or the industry with the slickest PR and most politically connected lobby campaign?

JAMES LEWIS Whitesburg


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