Coal Tattoo

Energy policy: One step up and two steps back

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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.