"Is America Ready to Quit Coal?"

So asks a must-read story by Melanie Warner in the Sunday New York Times.

And so, slowly, fitfully, that possibility — the possibility not just of cleaning up coal or using less coal but eliminating coal — creeps its way into the American public consciousness.

The headline isn’t the only thing worth celebrating. I would quibble with some details, but overall this piece comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen in the national media to getting the big story right.

It starts off by describing what too few people understand: coal is in a perilous position. Already building new coal plants is extremely expensive; any new regulations — on CO2, MTR mining, coal ash, you name it — could put new plants permanently off the table.

But the more interesting parts, to me, are those that describe the barriers in the way of quitting coal. Here are the big three, in order of importance:

The fear that that there’s no alternative.

"[W]hether renewables can keep the lights on and our iPods charged remains an open question."

Loss aversion is, in your author’s humble opinion, at the core of the coal fight. If the American people can be convinced an alternative is possible, they will not accept dirty, unhealthy energy, any more than they accept tainted water or cars without seat belts. But the fear of letting go of the devil they know, the fear of jumping into the unknown, is incredibly potent.

"Charging iPods" trivializes it; electricity provides basic sustenance, shelter, and comfort for families. For children. This is primal lizard-brain stuff. You do not mess with it lightly. Those looking to dethrone coal in the public imagination would do well to focus most of their firepower not on coal itself but on establishing the credibility and reliability of the renewables/efficiency alternative. It can’t be cutting edge and whizbang forever. It’s got to be safe for soccer moms in suburban Atlanta.

The fear of rising prices.

“The costs for those customers in the heartland who get more of their electricity from coal, not only residential but commercial customers, could be significantly higher, at a time when we can least afford it,” says Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities. “So we want to make sure that a climate change program is properly designed.”

That last sentence should make you shudder. "Properly designed" in this context means weak, with real cuts delayed for years and utilities the recipients of massive profit windfalls. There’s got to be pushback on this point, and not just rhetorical — there’s got to be a credible policy response. There’s got to be a way to either keep electrical bills down through efficiency or compensate people for the increase in bills without delaying or weakening carbon cuts. Democrats absolutely cannot wander into this battle without a serious response to this objection, which will be front and center in the national policy debate.

Utility inertia

Even if they want to, it’s going to be hard for utilities to wean themselves off huge coal plants, which are much simpler to plan and build than a collage of smaller alternative energy projects that cannot be counted on for continuous power.

“Utilities like to plan their world around big traditional power plants,” said Mr. Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Only when they are forced are they willing to rethink that business model.”

That’s putting it mildly. It’s hard to overstate how sclerotic the electricity utility business has become over the last five or six decades. They would desperately love to simply slip “clean coal” plants in where dirty coal plants used to go and call it good. That’s what they know. To really get them to abandon the huge-central-power-plant model and start thinking about hundreds of small-scale power generators, power storage mechanisms, and efficiency programs — enough to fill the hole big coal plants leave behind — is going to take some browbeating, some regulatory reforms, some legal challenges, and the occasional boot on the ass.

The shift away from coal is only partly about technical feasibility; it’s also about deeply ingrained economic and cultural habits and ways of thinking. In many ways that stuff is harder to change than technology.