Energy policy: One step up and two steps back

February 18, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

The coal-fired Plant Scherer in operation at Juliette, Ga. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe, File)

In some ways, we should probably see the latest op-ed commentary from West Virginia University’s mining engineering professor, Syd Peng, as a major victory for science and truth. Unlike just about all of West Virginia’s political leaders, Professor Peng seems to have given up on trying to pretend that the overwhelming science on climate change doesn’t exist:

There are legitimate reasons to be worried about climate change. Global energy consumption is so great and rising so fast that human activities are linked to climate change. Sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger, and large parts of the United States and other countries are now subject to extreme drought, resulting in less food production.

But to get to that part of his commentary, you have to first read through this:

With its ambitious plans for promoting energy efficiency and expanding the use of renewable energy sources in the fight against global warming, the Obama administration has climbed aboard the biggest bandwagon in energy policy. But the idea that a modern economy can forgo the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power because a combination of conservation and “clean” energy sources can take their place is absurd.

The biggest bandwagon in energy policy? Conservation and “clean energy” are absurd?

Well, we’ve been through the debunking of Dr. Peng before on this blog (see here and here), and this offering is in many ways similar to his early efforts. In attacking conservation as pointless and deriding a move toward renewable energy as “absurd,” Peng cites no data or studies. We’re just supposed to believe it because, well, he says so.  And plenty of West Virginians — and especially our state’s policymakers — will do just that, because Professor Peng’s views play into our love of coal and our opposition to change. But for those who want to look a little closer at this, here are just a few things to think about.

First, what about conservation or energy efficiency? Are these things pointless exercises that get us nowhere in dealing with climate change? Not so — at least according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which reports in its National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy:

… Energy efficiency measures — such as advanced buildings and industrial processes— and high-efficiency appliances, lighting, and motors reduce demand for electricity by 35 percent below the Reference case by 2030.

And what about Professor Peng’s notion that replacing our current energy system with renewable sources is “absurd.” Well, again, he doesn’t cite any data or studies or evidence. But there are plenty of pretty smart people who think he is simply wrong about this.

For example, Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California-Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi, conclude in this paper:

… Producing all new energy with [wind, water and solar[ by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic.

You can read more about their work here or here. Or, you could read this landmark report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which found that:

Renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.

Professor Peng goes on to pitch the idea that the only solution to climate change is carbon capture or sequestration, describing the technology as something that has “emerged” and can be made attractive “the right incentives and access to technology,” and concludes:

For something as vital as energy production, we need federal policies that can help meet our national security and economic aspirations. If the government imposed an affordable price on carbon emissions from the production and use of energy, some of the revenue could be used to develop and demonstrate technologies for carbon sequestration and advanced nuclear power. Such technologies could help revive sagging manufacturing industries in the United States and provide a significant export.

Well, gosh, let’s see … there was this legislation called Waxman-Markey, and it provided what even the United Mine Workers said provided a “remarkable” amount of funding for CCS projects — to the point that the union said the bill ensured “the future of coal will be intact.”

The Obama administration, which Professor Peng criticizes for jumping on an energy efficiency “bandwagon”, supported the legislation. It was Professor Peng’s friends in the coal industry who opposed it and ensured it never got passed.  Professor Peng is right that there needs to be a price put on carbon emissions — in fact, doing that is the only way that technology like CCS is ever going to be deployed (if it even works, can be scaled up appropriately, and is economically competitive).

But as long as folks like Professor Peng continue to try to wrongly tell West Virginians that there’s no alternative to coal, the industry and its political allies will never understand that they better get on the bandwagon and support legislation that will force CCS into the marketplace.

9 Responses to “Energy policy: One step up and two steps back”

  1. Bill Howley says:


    Thanks for pointing out the deficiencies in Prof. Peng’s analysis of the US electrical system. He appears to be a real expert in longwall mining, but he doesn’t appear to know much about current trends in managing the capacity of the US electrical supply.

    While I have no problem with people providing their opinions about a wide range of subjects beyond their field of expertise, they should have the courtesy to us, their readers, to inform their opinions with the real expertise in those subjects.

    As you point out, there is a massive amount of recent and not so recent information on the impacts of both energy efficiency investment and expanded wind and solar capacity that we have seen across the world in the last 20 years. I would appreciate it if Prof. Peng would study even a few of the links you have provided before he writes his next opinion piece on the US electrical system.

  2. William says:

    Solar power and wind does not work and that a fact Norway has tried for years too have their power come from this energy source but it will just not work. So as bad as people hate coal it gonna be around for a long time we will just not mine it here we will have in emport it like we do oil then power bills will be very very high

  3. Bill Howley says:


    I am a little confused by your reference to Norway. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry on renewable power in Norway Note the second and third sentences – “Over 99% of the electricity production in mainland Norway is covered by hydropower plants. The total production of electricity from hydropower plants amounted to 135.3 TWh in 2007.” It is clear that Norway is a bastion of renewable power, but they have very little need for any other power source besides hydropower. I don’t know where you got your information about Norway, but it just makes no sense.

    I suggest you take a look at what is going on in Germany. German electric rates are three times what electric rates are in the US, but their average monthly electric bill is about $105 dollars, while the average US monthly residential electric bill is $110. That’s because in Germany a significant amount those higher rates is invested in efficiency and conservation investments which reduce everyone’s overall electricity use, but provide a higher quality of life than in the US.

    If you want to read more about the German situation, take a look at Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn from It by Osha Gray Davidson, Susan White, Catherine Mann and Christopher Flavin. Here’s a link to the book at Amazon –

  4. Steve says:

    I’ve read the research by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California-Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi. What I would like to know is what is it going to cost the average tax payer to implement all this? Has anyone priced a ground source heat pump (mentioned in the research) lately? Efficient, but very expensive. I read an article the other day that said to heat a average home entirely by a solar, the system would cost around one hundred fifty thousand dollars. If this is going to be a reality in the near future, then minimum wage had better go up by more than two bucks. I know, I know, the air will be cleaner and we will all of a sudden become more healthy because of the clean air and water. Therefore, the cost will be off set, right?

  5. Bill Howley says:


    Why would anyone heat a home with PV panels? In Germany and Denmark, there are now houses and apartments that can be heated entirely by the waste heat exhausted from refrigerators and other appliances.

    You invest in building passive homes instead of burning fuel.

    That was exactly the point that Ken was making above.

    Expensive? From the NYT article: “And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.” So you make a 7% higher investment in building costs for a house you can heat with a hair dryer for as long as you own it. In a climate like Germany’s.

  6. Steve says:

    How much does it cost to build a conventional house in Germany? “Architects need to be careful about site selection”.Site location will be everything, so that in itself will be expensive. Until anyone can pull it of the shelf at Lowe’s, it will not be a within reach of the average person.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Are you sure you read the research I linked to? Because if you read even the abstract of the Jacobson-Delucchi paper ( ) it states clearly:

    “The energy cost in a [wind, water and solar] world should be similar to
    that today.”

    There is more detail about the costs involved also available in this article,

    In addition, you seem focused only on the costs of taking some action about our energy system and climate change — and you’re ignoring (as most people do) the costs we are already paying for the results of human-induced climate change. The great blog Climate Progress had an article recently on this issue, that said among other things:

    “Globally, extreme weather and climate change are already shaving 1.6 percent off worldwide gross domestic product — or about $1.2 trillion per year — according to a study by DARA. By 2030, it will be up 3.2 percent of global GDP, costing the United States over 2 percent of its GDP and India over 5 percent.

    “In the U.S. specifically, the heat waves and droughts that continue to sweep through Texas, Oklahoma and the Midwest have driven crop yields down a food prices up, resulting in record payouts for crop-insurance claims. Davenport cites a 2011 study by the consulting firm Mercer that warned climate change could increase investment-portfolio risk by 10 percent over the next two decades, by disrupting supply chains.

    “The country is suffering larger and more frequent wildfires, storms are damaging infrastructure and causing power outages and fuel-price spikes, and relief aid for Superstorm Sandy alone cost the federal government over $60 billion”


  8. Vernon says:

    Of course, efficiency is the first, cheapest, and most cost effective approach to reduce energy use and cut GHGs. We could save consumers money and provide jobs if we could get away from the “hoping for a cold winter so coal prices go up” (i.e. hoping rate payers get stuck with huge bills) mentality. Energy Efficient West Virginia has posted a report by Optimal Energy Inc. saying that “Realizing the total potential noted in Table 1 would save customers a total of $800 million over the life of the efficiency investments, $550 million more than with the companies’ plans. It would require an additional utility investment of $300 million, approximately 3% of total utility revenue, yet this would create over 19,500 jobs. These savings are the least cost energy resource for West Virginia, about half the cost of the energy from the coal plant purchase proposed by FirstEnergy.
    These savings are readily achievable. FirstEnergy and American Electric Power are already investing in robust energy efficiency programs in Ohio; they should be offering such programs in West Virginia. The companies have the expertise to deliver better energy efficiency services for West Virginia customers, but to date they have not done so.”

  9. Steve says:

    Yes I’ve read “A Path To Sustinable Energy By 2030” by Jacobson & Delucchi. In the last part of the study titled “Political Will” they state,

    “With extremely aggressive policies, all existing fossil-fuel capacity could theoretically be retired and replaced in the same period, but with more modest and likely policies full replacement may take 40 to 50 years.”

    Now that sounds a little more realistic and maybe affordable.

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