Do we ‘have to’ keep using coal?
This AFP analysis distills crusty conventional wisdom: "coal-fired power plants, which generate about half of US electricity and 40 percent of US greenhouse gas output, will have to be the backbone of America’s power grid for decades because US coal is plentiful and relatively cheap."
This is wrong on so many levels that its levels have levels. But I want to hone in on one thing.
Insofar as you believe coal will remain the "backbone" of U.S. electricity, it’s just false to attribute that fact to the commodity price of coal. After all, solar and wind energy are plentiful and free. What matters is the cost of converting coal (or wind, or sunlight, or hot rocks) to delivered electricity; fuel costs are only one piece of that process.
Currently in the U.S., power made from coal is cheaper than power made from renewables. (Though in some areas, wind power and solar-thermal power are competitive.) But it’s widely acknowledged that coal power is advantaged by the fact that numerous social and ecological costs along the chain from extraction to end use are externalized. The price consumers pay for coal-fired electricity does not include a full accounting of its costs.
But those costs are real. That is to say, they eventually translate to dollars out of taxpayer pockets. Sooner or later costs are paid. Saying coal power is cheap is a bit like saying my credit card is cheap at the beginning of the month. Only problem is, it gets more expensive at the end of the month when the bill arrives.
When some of coal’s external costs are internalized, it is true that the price of coal power rises, but it is also true that the once-externalized costs fall (assuming they have been accurately assessed, which is a tendentious matter to say the least). Macroeconomically, it’s a wash. The distribution of costs and benefits has shifted. Those who once enjoyed cheap coal power will pay more. Communities that suffered from high cancer rates from living around coal mines or high asthma rates from living around coal power plants will pay less in healthcare costs. Coal utilities will spend more, but hospitals will spend less. That kind of thing.
Of course this sets aside the political danger of making once-hidden costs visible, and possible equity effects of shifting risks and costs. But one analyst says in the story, "Obama cannot ignore the economic side of the story." What the analyst passes over — and what the mainstream press almost universally ignores — is that externalized costs are costs, and thus part of the "economic side of the story." Even if they are inadequately or incompletely measured, even if they are not incorporated into indicators like GDP, they are not ghost costs. Someone pays them.
To say we "have to" keep coal as our electricity backbone because it’s cheap is just to say that we "have to" keep offloading costs onto the public, primarily the poor and working class in the U.S. and in developing countries. Maybe that’s a defensible conclusion, but journalists and analysts should present arguments and evidence for it, not take it for granted.