Coal Remains King for Reliable, Economical Energy

The following article originally was published in the April 16, 2010, Grand Junction Free Press.

Coal remains king for reliable, economical energy

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Apparently the legislature’s idea of a “pro-business” bill is paying off special interests with legal favoritism that screws consumers.

Previously the Ritter administration promoted harsher drilling restrictions that dampened Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry. More recently, the legislature passed bill 1365, which requires Xcel to replace some low cost, coal-burning power plants with natural gas. Guess which industry lobbied and advertised in favor of the bill.

The new controls, combined with requirements that utilities produce 30 percent of their energy from so-called “renewable” sources by 2020, will ensure that Coloradans face ever-increasing utility bills. So thank the legislature when you have to cut back on your savings, college funds, grocery budget, or entertainment spending.

Artificially increasing our energy costs is an explicit goal of the environmentalist lobby, which figures higher prices will force people to cut back on use, as well as make wind and solar energy comparatively more attractive.

While we’re thrilled that our region provides the resources for natural gas production, our state shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss coal. The World Coal Institute estimates that “there are over 847 billion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide,” enough “to last us over 130 years at current rates of production,” compared to 40 or 60 years worth of oil and gas. Known reserves tend to expand over time as companies find more and improve extraction technology. Our nation contains huge reserves of coal.

Environmentalists will retort that the “known reserves” of solar and wind power extend to billions of years. The problem is collecting it economically. Sunlight scatters over the surface of the earth only during certain hours, and it can be reduced by clouds. The wind blows only occasionally, sometimes it blows too hard for the generators, and again it is widely dispersed. This energy is hardly “free;” energy collectors must be built and continually maintained.

After the collection problem, the second major problem for solar panels and wind turbines is storing the energy. Most of our usable energy must be stored in chemical form. This is true of coal, gas, solar, and wind. Once we move beyond sailboats, wind-powered mills, and solar dehydrators, heating up water or bricks pretty much exhausts the possibilities of using “renewable” energy until we talk about modern advances.

Wood, coal, oil, and natural gas contain combustible elements that may be burned for energy. The electricity generated by solar panels and wind turbines must be converted to chemical energy, such as hydrogen storage or a battery. Hydrogen suffers volatility problems. The material of batteries must be mined and otherwise produced. Batteries are expensive and extremely messy to produce and discard. Plus, they leak energy.

A lump of coal is much like a little energy-packed battery that never loses energy until purposely converted. Somebody lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to various electronic devices, need not worry about clouds or other variances interrupting the local power source. Coal is reliable as well as economical. Coal has made our lives vastly safer, longer, healthier, more comfortable, and more productive.

What does the future of energy hold? We do not doubt that at some point researchers and industrialists will figure out new and better ways to power our lives. Critics of Ayn Rand’s novels who have never actually gotten around to reading them may not have noticed that Rand, who once wrote of the blessings of smokestacks, imagined a world in which a creative genius invents a generator to convert atmospheric electricity into a never-ending power source, destined to replace coal and oil.

If we could accurately predict energy advances we’d grow very wealthy. Perhaps somebody will figure out how to economically convert coal to gas or chemically “burn” it in a fuel cell. Perhaps somebody will make a breakthrough in nuclear energy. Perhaps cheap solar panels will someday blanket rooftops across the country.

What we do know is that the government should stop playing favorites. Businesses should succeed or fail in a free market, not according to how well they kiss legislative backside. If the goal is to address measurable, objectively harmful, localized pollution, that is properly a matter for court remedies, not legislative micromanagement.

We’ve lost count of the times Governor Ritter and his media stooges have exultantly proclaimed that the higher-cost “new energy economy” will “create jobs.” They neglect to count the jobs lost in other energy sectors and among all the other businesses that suffer because people must spend their money instead on higher energy costs.

In the real world, no form of energy is free. And politicians are hardly competent to evaluate the relevant tradeoffs.