Monday, December 16, 2013

An “All of the Above” Energy Strategy Shouldn't Mean Absurd Subsidies and Loopholes

In the recent issue of our local rural power cooperative's publication, Ruralite, the National Rural Electric Cooperative tried to convince us that coal is still a cheap source of power. I appreciate their efforts to keep electric bills affordable. However, just because they are heavily invested in coal doesn't mean Mt. Wheeler Power has to live by their flawed economic calculations. In the real world, coal is far more expensive than the coal industry wants us to know. The reason your coal fired power bill seems cheap is because they have been taking some of their profits from your taxes (and worse, they have left you with the bill for dealing with their poisonous and climate altering wastes). 

Since 1950, the U.S. Government has provided the coal burning industry with over $70 billion in tax breaks and subsidies. Additionally, over the past 30 years, coal mining has received almost $30 billion in U.S. subsidies. Our tax dollars are being used to make it appear that coal power is cheap. They are using our own money to hoodwink us. Face it; there is no legitimate reason financially successful companies should be receiving absurd subsidies such as this. This isn't free market economics, it's welfare for established monopolistic industries! Every tax-paying American is being forced to support an industry that is taking our nation's resources to pollute the rest of our resources.

...Eventually humanity will have to stop burning coal for power. Either a competing technology will be better or we will someday run out of coal. Either way, coal is not a long-term option. (And besides, if we burn up all that coal for power, how are we going to smelt our minerals?)

The estimate the coal industry quoted in this article for how much coal remains in the ground is practically laughable. “236 years.” Like they were able to accurately estimate, down to the year; how much coal is left in the ground and how much America will burn it. What are the error tolerances? I'd say about 236 years plus or minus 200 years (but most likely minus).

When I hear of pie-in-the-sky estimates like this, it reminds me that coal mining corporations' investment dollars are dependent upon estimates of recoverable coal reserves. If they say they have a lot of coal, investors will invest more. The U.S. Energy Information Agency probably just takes every one of these over-optimistic estimates and adds them up. Of course, the coal industry doesn't complain because it gives us a false sense of plenty.

...Nonetheless, the obvious reality is that this isn't really about the coal. This is about the money. Ideally, in a more just society; our subsidies wouldn't be going to the highest bidder. Ideally that $100 billion would have gone towards the development of safe, reliable, sustainable energy production. But quite likely, much of those subsidies ultimately went into the oligarchy's off-shore bank accounts.

Worldwide, all fossil fuels together have received half a trillion dollars in government subsides every year! Could you imagine where the people of the world would be if we had given those subsidies to renewable energy companies instead? We would have been breathing healthier, instead of having to live with a trashed atmosphere. We would still have the tops of the Appalachians. We might have still had a reliable climate. But, most important to the coal industry; we would have been more self-reliant, instead of reluctantly propping up an industry far past its prime. The coal industry doesn't want us to be independent. They want us to be dependent – upon them. And for that, it appears that they intend to fool us into paying any price.

A Harvard study has calculated that the hidden cost of coal in America (over and above what we pay to the power companies) is half a trillion dollars a year. Somebody's got to pay for the health care for all those black lung disease patients – and asthma – and lung disease – and cancer etc.

So, why didn't the author of this article on coal power want to talk about those costs? My guess is that they don't want us to think about them. They don't want to pay for those costs – and as long as they control the focus of the argument, they don't want us to focus on “externalities.” “Externalities,” you know; the economists' term for costs they don't have to pay because... well, they made a deal with our government. As long as they live within the rules they helped write, ignoring the consequences of their actions is perfectly legal.

The medical journal Lancet lists air pollution in its top 10 disease risk factors. And, of course, burning of fossil fuels is the greatest emitter of air pollution. Environment America has rated the Intermountain Power Project in Utah the 29th dirtiest power plant in America. That's right, the coal-fired power plant Mt. Wheeler Power buys most of its electricity from is one of the dirtiest power plants in the country. This is what they are trying to prop up.

...The title of the article in the Ruralite publication I am commenting on is “When it Comes to Providing Energy, 'All-of-the-Above' Strategy is Critical.” Or in other words; “give coal some loopholes.” Now for a moment, think about a term they used; “critical.” When I think of the word “critical,” I think of the condition of the most desperate people in hospitals. I think of crisis or emergency. But if the coal industry doesn't get their absurd subsidies or environmental loopholes, nobody is going to die. On the other hand, if they continue to get away with not having to deal with the consequences of their actions, lots of people are going to die – lots of people who wouldn't have died, if we weren't burning poisons.

A World Health Organization study has revealed that 3.3 million people die every year worldwide from outdoor air pollution.

This is an enormous catastrophic cost. But this cost rarely even gets mentioned. How can any rational economic system just ignore the highest cost to humanity? People are dying. A lot of people are dying. If the fossil fuel industry were shooting these people, the world would be in an uproar. But since they (and we) are poisoning them; hey, that's just the cost of doing business?

...I guess if the coal industry doesn't want to talk about the health effects, most likely they don't want to talk about the effects on the environment either? Nope. All the article mentioned was Carbon Sequestration, and... well, forget about it.

Of course, what we can't forget about is that coal pollution seriously effects our environment. For example; the drought in the American West for the past 13 years has severely effected our water supply. And a Department of Energy study has shown that coal soot melts snow pack.

…But that's just an inconvenience compared to what coal pollution, that witches brew of tons of dangerous and poisonous chemicals emitted by every coal-fired power plant (both into the air and onto the ground), does to plants and animals.

A USGS study has found widespread mercury contamination in American “fresh” water. It simply isn't as safe to eat anything anymore... Nonetheless, mercury is just one of the many dangerous and poisonous effluents from coal-fired power plants – even ones with “scrubbers” (because what doesn't go into the air ends up on the ground).

We've been poisoning ourselves. We've been allowing others to poison us. But we don't have to do that any more. Just this one benefit of renewable energy is absolutely priceless! We no longer have to poison ourselves, our families, and everyone we know to get electricity. Even if it cost a little more at first, eventually inflation will drive the cost of coal generation up – and renewable energy will be cheaper in the long run.

So, here's the deal; we can get something priceless for the price of what we're going to have to do eventually anyway. Any reasonable economic system would favor wise decisions. But apparently, our economic markets are so perverted by manipulated laws that somehow poisoning ourselves looks like a thrifty idea.

The fatal flaw of our economic system is that we can't seem to think long term. In most companies, long term planning is five years out. Just five years. But those five years keep on adding up. Global warming started to become a real issue back in the '80s. It's been almost 35 years now.

If you were born after April 1985, you have never seen a month on Earth cooler than what was once the average Earth temperature. This has had a direct effect on the quality of your life. This has had a substantial effect on the quality of life on Earth. Every ecosystem on the planet is in decline.

I'll say it... We are already firmly in the grip of climate change.

The price of food and food security have already been significantly effected by climate change.

In the West, the recreation and tourism industry has suffered due to drought, pestulance, and fire. This will likely get significantly worse as climate change progresses.

According to the international humanitarian organization DARA; extreme weather and climate change are already costing the world $1.2 trillion a year.

And the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research claims that if the world puts off cooperative efforts to fight climate change until 2030, the costs will triple.

...What costs? There's no mention of these costs in the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association article... Personally, I consider that the epitome of irresponsibility. But that's just how our economic system is focused. Everybody does it. Unfortunately however, what we ignore in real world doesn't go away. And if we ignore the consequences of dumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, there will likely be Hell to pay – starting now and lasting for a thousand years. Because much of the carbon dioxide we are emitting will stay in the atmosphere for the next thousand years.

On top of that, carbon dioxide can naturally become carbonic acid. Due to the high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the oceans are becoming more acidic faster than they have in the past 300 million years (a period that includes four mass extinctions). Already some life in the oceans is being disintegrated by this acidic water. Eventually, and possibly much sooner than we think; we may lose our coral reefs.

What price would you pay to keep the oceans' coral reefs? I believe that if we really knew the consequences of our actions, we might act far more responsibly. Which is why so many of us must not want to know the consequences of our actions. Sadly, I have watched for decades as the problem continues to get worse – while so many people continue to pretend that they aren't a part of the problem. Our economy, our nation, even our civilization is now likely at critical risk. (And unlike the coal industry article, I really mean “critical.”)

We are already seeing vast methane plumes North of Siberia. Methane is 20 times the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is – and there are vast of frozen methane pockets worldwide on the verge of a tipping point – where the melted methane could heat the Earth enough to develop a self-reinforcing cycle of melting even more methane, and more, and more. Oh, and one more thing, over a 20 year period, methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

A study printed in the science publication Nature predicts that by 2050, as many as a million species may go extinct due to climate change...

Nobody wants to pay high power bills. But the cost of coal-fired power has become far higher than we ever imagined.

The Mt. Wheeler Power (MWP) cooperative doesn't generate power. They deliver power. Financially, it doesn't really matter to MWP how our power is generated – as long as they can make enough money to continue to provide needed services. Herein lies an opportunity.

MWP already offers wind generated power. And with net metering, some of us locals could even generate solar and wind power ourselves – to intermittently be shared with others here. This provides the opportunity for MWP to be the middleman between local generators and customers.

Fossil fuels were the fuel of the 20th century. But they were so successful that everybody did it. And when everybody does anything, the consequences pile up. We still need power, however. And photovoltaic solar power keeps getting cheaper.

In time, inflation will drive up the price of coal-fired power generation – even if the coal industry doesn't have to clean up their act. But most renewable energy is an up-front cost. Which means once it's paid for, there is nothing to drive up the cost. MWP needs to rethink their business model. Steptoe Valley is an excellent place to generate photovoltaic energy. MWP needs to consider power purchase offers for truly clean power generated right here locally.

The coal-fired power plant in Utah (where MWP buys its power from) is getting near retirement age. The time has come to adapt – or suffer the environment and economy crushing consequences.


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