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Lehr and Harris column: Time to end war on coal

Several energy producers across America are taking advantage of the climate scare to try to force their customers to pay for unnecessary conversions away from dependable, inexpensive coal-fired electricity generation to unreliable and costly wind and solar power. The Wisconsin-based utility Alliant Energy, which provides electricity to about 960,000 customers in Wisconsin and Iowa, is a case in point.

Alliant plans an 80 percent reduction of its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 by closing all of its coal-fired power plants. Coal currently produces 33 percent of the utility's electricity.

On April 11, an Iowa Utilities Board public meeting was held to address Alliant's short-term plan to close some of its coal power plants and replace them primarily with wind power. Alliant has petitioned the Board for a 25 percent hike in its base electricity rate to pay for the switch to wind power.

Approximately 60 people attended the meeting, about a dozen of whom spoke, all of them in opposition to the rate hike (primarily senior citizens saying that they could not afford higher power costs).

Alliant Energy executive Terry Kouba claimed at the meeting that fuel-cost savings achieved by switching from coal to wind power will mean customers will pay "merely" 17 percent more in electricity costs rather than 25 percent.

Alliant also claimed customers will eventually save money from the proposal, as year-after-year fuel-cost savings will eventually cover the upfront cost of building and emplacing new wind power equipment.

In his public comments at the meeting, James Taylor, senior fellow, Environment and Energy Policy at The Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based free-market think tank, pointed out that in the 18 states where coal provides the lion's share of electricity, 15 of those 18 states have electricity prices below the national average. Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin are only three states where prices are above the national average.

Wind power is the reason why these three states have electricity prices above the national average. Kansas has the second-highest percentage of wind power in the country, while Michigan and Wisconsin are two of the five fastest-growing states for wind power.

Taylor told the meeting that Iowa wind power generation has grown five-fold during the past decade, much faster than the national average. As a result, while national electricity prices were essentially flat during the past decade (rising less than 1 percent per year), Iowa electricity prices rose 31 percent during the past decade.

Taylor also explained that, although Iowa still enjoys electricity prices below the national average — because coal still provides most electricity in the state — Alliant's proposal would push Iowa electricity prices above the national average. Moreover, the new rate hike — on top of the 31 percent rate hikes already imposed by wind power — would result in a greater-than-50 percent increase in electricity prices due to wind power in the past decade.

Taylor challenged Kouba to sign a contractual guarantee that Alliant would reduce its rates at least 25 percent within the next 15 years to back up his claim that customers would eventually save money under the Alliant proposal. Kouba declined to do so. The Board will issue a decision on Alliant's proposal later this year.

A similar situation has developed in other states where electric utilities are planning to try to replace coal plants with wind and solar largely as a result of climate change concerns.

This must stop. Coal has huge advantages as a fuel: It is abundant, inexpensive, easy to burn, easy to store and transport, packs a great deal of energy, and power plants can be built in a variety of sizes.

And, America is blessed with 22.1 percent of the world's proven coal reserves, the greatest of any country and enough to last for about 380 years at current consumption rates.

Mined and burned with the latest pollution control technology, coal is both clean and safe. It's time to end the war on coal.

Jay Lehr is senior policy analyst with of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC). Tom Harris is executive director of ICSC and a policy adviser to The Heartland Institute.