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Trying to save coal, no matter the cost

A bill to keep Kentucky coal plants open defies logic, reality, and expert advice

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The E W Brown Power Plant, taken from KY 29 south of Wilmore (photo by Censusdata [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons) 

A pro-coal vote by the Kentucky legislature isn’t news. But this month’s Senate approval of a bill to restrict the closure of coal power plants goes so far even electric utilities in Kentucky opposed it.

Discussion around Senate Bill 4 shows that the legislature’s tendencies it has displayed on issues from education to medical care to gender identity also applies to the energy industry. The Republican-dominated statehouse is determined to turn back time, ignore the experts, and divert attention from the real issues.

SB4 makes it harder for a utility to retire its coal plants. The stated aim is to protect the reliability of electricity from solar energy, since it’s only available in the daytime, and from wind because it’s only available when it’s breezy. Coal plants can run all the time.

But utilities have been closing coal plants like crazy due to economics as well as environmental concerns – one-third of the nation’s coal plants have been retired since 2008 and the trend is expected to continue. SB 4 wants to slow that decline with a soundbite solution easily sellable on the coal-country campaign trail.

Here’s what’s wrong with that.

Living in Mary Poppins-land

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration wrote last year that, “The amount of electric power produced from coal has been steadily declining in the United States over the past 10 years to a 46-year low … in 2020.”

The reason, says the EIA, is economics. For the most part, it’s cheaper to produce power with a natural gas plant. Even solar and wind energy are now price-competitive with coal. When a coal generating station nears the end of its projected 50-or-so year life, utilities look at spreadsheets that tell them to decommission the plant.

Coal mine employment is also plummeting. In addition to economics, advances in mining technology have brought the number of Kentucky coal mining jobs from more than 50,000 in 1978, to fewer than 5,000 today.

At a February Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee hearing on the bill, Senators blamed coal’s decline on environmental regulations and subsidies for renewable energy. Blaming coal’s woes on clean-air rules is somewhere between partly and mostly true. But it’s also true that “renewable energy is the fastest growing electricity generation source in the United States,” says the EIA. And that’s expected to continue. EIA projects that from now to 2050 the share of U.S. electricity produced by renewable energy (that’s mainly wind, solar, and hydroelectricity) will grow from 21% to 44%, while coal’s share will drop from 23% to 10%.

That’s the reality the legislature wants to deny.

And even if all the blame could be put on onerous environmental regulations, those won’t be changing either. There’s little appetite to roll back Clean Air Act rules limiting the respiratory effects of sulfur dioxide; mercury’s effects on the brain, heart, kidneys, and lungs; or the toxic and sky-darkening effects of soot and ash. We’re not going back to London’s smoke-darkened sky that the chimney sweeps saw from the rooftops at the end of Mary Poppins.

The legislature knows best

The most remarkable part of SB4’s approval is it came over the objections of representatives of LG&E-KU and Duke Energy. They testified at the committee hearing that the bill “could lead to higher energy rates for our customers and could actually have an adverse impact on reliability.”

Republican legislators and the large electric utilities in Kentucky rarely disagree. But in this case, the utilities essentially said, we got this, let us do our job. Senators, in explaining their committee votes said, yeah maybe so, but we just generally don’t like federal environmental measures so we’re passing it anyway.

The electric grid is going through profound changes. The variable nature of renewable energy, the new transmission lines that energy will require, and climate-related weather extremes are top-of-mind priorities for the utility industry. The response by utilities includes strategies like using digital sensors and computer algorithms to coordinate power flows, investing in infrastructure upgrades, and adding large-scale batteries to increase reliability.

As the LG&E-KU representative testified at the committee hearing, “Safe, reliable service is at the core of what we do as a company.”

SB4, by contrast, weighs in on those changes with a counterproductive howl at the moon.

What climate change?

Missing from the committee action was not only any discussion of the climate change effects of global warming, but also of federal steps being taken to help the coal industry.

It’s an example of the new conservative position on global warming. Gone are Republican rants denying climate change is happening. The new strategy is misdirection – there are too many outages, prices are too high, the grid isn’t ready for an onslaught of electric cars. For Kentucky legislators, all these crises have the same solution: more coal.

Climate change was mentioned in the committee hearing only as the “silliness” and “nonsense” of Biden administration programs to encourage renewable energy. Senators cited power outages for costing Kentucky lives after weather disasters, without a mention of the links made between climate change and last year’s deadly flooding in the eastern part of the state. And of course there was also no mention of national and international alarms of already-here cataclysmic warnings of weather-related  disruptions to American agriculture and displacement of refugees.

Similarly there was no mention of Biden Administration measures to invest heavily in support for coal, including $12 billion on research into alternative uses like using greenhouse gases to make building and paving material, and substantial increases in tax credits for developing ways to remove greenhouse gas from the air. Not acknowledging pro-coal Biden efforts offers strong evidence that the real goal of SB4 is not a revival of the coal industry, but scoring political points.

During the Natural Resources committee hearing a Republican Senator expressed concern about one part of the bill and how she had received assurances that it would be looked at and possibly changed. She gently complained that Kentucky didn’t have markup sessions she could be part of, like her colleagues in other states, where the bill was discussed and amended in real time. Instead, she said she would vote in favor of the measure, reluctantly trusting that her concerns would be taken care of.

In the Kentucky legislature, with a veto-proof Republican majority, you don’t have to fool with niceties like markups, experts, logic, or reality.

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Paul Wesslund

Paul Wesslund writes on energy issues and is an organizer of the REAL Good News environmental forums. He blogs on how decency succeeds in business and in life at paulwesslund.com.

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