San Francisco -- Oil and coal are not about to let clean energy get to market without a
fight. And Congress is so used to thinking of energy policy in terms of
which regions produce which fuels -- instead of in the context of our
need for energy services -- that they are getting a hearing.
Peabody Coal just launched a huge attack
on wind energy. In an ad in Roll Call aimed at Congress, the coal
producer makes the claim that coal-fired power plants, even when
equipped with as-yet unproven and therefore uncosted capture-and-sequestration technology, will be 15-50 percent cheaper than wind, 28 percent
cheaper than natural gas, and 15 percent cheaper than nuclear. These are absurd figures. A recent
California PUC study estimated that wind would cost 9 cents per kilowatt hour
delivered; coal, with capture and storage, would cost 17 cents; combined cycle
natural gas power would cost 9.4 cents; geothermal, 10 cents;
concentrating solar, 12 cents; and nuclear, 15 cents. A wide variety of
other analyses have also shown that coal, if you have to capture its
carbon, simply doesn't compete -- except maybe with nuclear.
None of these studies included the costs of properly treating the currently
unregulated coal-ash wastes from these plants, which were to blame for
the disastrous spill in Tennessee last Christmas. In reality, they are
all tilted toward coal.
This cost disadvantage to coal is not just theoretical. Look at the experience of the past several months. An economic crisis drives down electricity demand, particularly for
industry. U.S. electrical demand has, indeed, slumped -- by 4.5 percent. But demand for coal-generated power is
down three times as fast, by 13.4 percent, while cleaner natural gas is up
3.4 percent, and wind is up by 60 percent -- and that reflects the huge new wind
construction in 2008 so it's not really apples to apples.
These kinds of numbers are why Jon Wellinghoff, the head of the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has stepped forward and stated
the simple truth -- the U.S. can meet its electricity needs without
building a single new coal or nuclear power plant. Wellinghoff was predictably and promptly attacked by the coal industry, But the attack didn't seek to rebut any of Wellinghoff's analysis -- because the industry can't.
Coal is not alone. The oil industry is
calling on its allies in the Senate to slow progress. Utah Senator Bob
Bennett, now joined by fellow oil-advocate Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, is refusing
to permit the confirmation of David Hayes as Deputy Secretary of the
Interior until Secretary Ken Salazar gives Bennett satisfaction about oil
leases on public lands. These are leases that George W. Bush issued at the end of his term and
which Salazar has canceled. And clean energy advocates lobbying swing
members of Congress report that coal and oil are finding a hearing.
Mark-ups of the Waxman-Markey Climate Security Act are slowing down
because the votes are not yet there even for such seemingly obvious
steps as a 25 percent renewable electricity standard. Public utilities are
making a major, and seemingly successful, bid to block the president's
plan to auction off 100 percent of the carbon permits in any climate program,
and instead are on the verge of grabbing 40 percent for their own benefit -- a
raid which, if successful, will greatly slow the pace at which these
utilities actually have to clean up their carbon pollution.
It's time to turn up the heat on members of Congress who don't get
that this is our future they're talking about, and that energy policy is
now too important to be left to energy lobbyists.
Follow Carl Pope on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CarlPope