Blog, Climate, Coal

On cheap energy and misinformation…

If your electricity comes from an electric membership corporation (a “cooperative” or EMC) chances are you’ve come across Find a Balanced Solution (// This is a national campaign to kill climate change legislation aimed at you through EMCs, such as Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation here in northwestern North Carolina. “Affordability” is their hot button, something that obviously and with good reason, resonates nowadays.

This campaign leads readers to believe that renewable energy and curbing carbon emissions are expensive whereas coal is cheap and its impacts are practically non-existent. To be charitable on this last claim, they imply that environmental impacts are manageable and well out in the future.

How convenient.

The reality though is that none of claims are true. We should note that sophisticated and incredibly well funded campaigns like this are ubiquitous in our world so long as climate legislation remains even a faint possibility. The US Chamber of Commerce and other groups are in lockstep with the big polluters.

Some interesting news and studies in recent days, however, give us pause to dust off our criticisms of these unfounded claims. Today’s Charlotte Observer reports that Duke Energy will be raising utility rates by 8%. (//’d asked the NC Utilities Commission for more. This is the same Duke Energy that is building Cliffside (// , thereby locking ratepayers into rising coal prices for another 30 years.

And it will cost dearly. The problem is, the utilities are passing the buck. The National Academy of Research just released a study finding that electricity generation from coal costs $62 billion annually, which are nowhere reflected in the ledger sheet. Further, the study only looked at public health, not at other costs such as global warming or the environmental costs of mountain top removal coal mining. If $62 billion doesn’t stagger the mind, adding these additional costs would. By the way, the researchers assigned a $6 million dollar price tag on a human life.

Besides the public health costs that go unaccounted for (that is, are given for free to the corporations that mine and burn coal), studies are showing that coal may not be as plentiful as the “official” claims suggest. The catch here is what existing coal reserves are “economically recoverable” since we can blast the planet to smithereens but what would it cost?

Richard Heinberg’s Boston Review article (// points out that the first scientific study of US coal reserves in 1905 found that the nation had a 5,000-year supply of coal. The “official” study now in use, dates back to the 1970’s, which finds only a 250-year supply.

Heinberg’s point isn’t that we misplaced 4,750 years worth of coal. Rather, much of the coal that was accurately identified in 1905 simply will never be economical to mine. Current studies, including the USGS, point to the very real possibility that we may reach “peak coal” in the lifetime of Duke’s Cliffside plant now under construction. Whether peak coal or global warming is the correct argument is secondary to the fact that we need quick action.

So, back to renewables.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance just released a report (//, the second in a series, looking at local renewable energy. It finds that states like North Carolina can meet more than twice its electric generation needs with renewable sources found in state. Wind is already cost competitive at 3 cents per kwh, making the NC legislature’s acrimonious dance with wind puzzling at best; backward and costly at worst.

Wouldn’t utilities better serve the public by embracing renewables, even partnering with communities to build significant generation from solar and wind? If affordability is truly the utilities’ chief concern, then promoting a responsible mix of distributed wind and solar ought to be our path to the future. The fuel is free!

The National Academy of Research’s press release is here…


Other accounts of this important story are here:





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