Op-Ed: Americans Will Pay a High Price to Save Coal

Source: By Editorial Board, Bloomberg • Posted: Tuesday, June 5, 2018

An interesting question raised by President Donald Trump’s misguided order to prop up uneconomical coal and nuclear power plants in the name of national security is: How much is this going to cost?

Not in climate terms, although here the indirect costs could be greatest in the long run. And not in terms of public health, although air pollution from a single coal plant causes hundreds of asthma attacks and dozens of premature deaths every year.

Setting those crucial matters aside, what will it cost in dollars and cents spent on electricity in the U.S.? That’s something the Trump administration has neglected to estimate. It should. U.S. coal plants have been closing fast — more than half of them since 2010 — because they have trouble competing with cheaper natural-gas power plants. Keeping these inefficient plants open is going to put utility customers out of pocket.

Could the cost in pollution, premature deaths from particulate emissions, and higher utility bills conceivably be worth it? In his order Friday, Trump said plant closures threaten the nation’s energy mix and the “resilience” of the grid. This, in turn, threatens national security, in part because U.S. Defense Department installations are almost entirely dependent on the commercial power grid, according to an earlier administration memo obtained by Bloomberg News. Theoretically, the grid needs coal to ensure continuous energy in the event natural gas, hydro power, solar and wind can’t do the job.

This not a real problem, however, as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more or less ruled several months ago when it turned down Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s last attempt to prop up coal by rewarding it for its “resilience.” Deregulated power markets in the U.S. already assure a dependable fuel supply by matching prices to demand. FERC might be asked to cooperate again in raising rates to implement this new plan; if so, it should refuse again.

The chief beneficiaries of Trump’s plan would be coal-plant operators and their suppliers, a group that includes some of the president’s top supporters. The losses for everybody else — in higher emissions of carbon, additional premature deaths, and higher outlays on electricity — would be far greater. Dirty energy at higher cost: That’s some deal.