No matter ones perception of losers or winners on November 3rd, this forthcoming change of administrations may also change how we look at energy policy in the United States. A year ago we began exploring external costs and how our economy is structure to ignore or defer added hidden costs to production or use, of one energy source over another. No matter the energy source there are extended costs often ignored by proponents. Coal is a good example. Older coal fired electric generating plants have higher levels of air pollution. Though the only power plant in the Progress News area is the smaller Scrubgrass power plant, older coal fired generating plants have significantly higher levels of air pollution and the related health costs triggered federal and state governments to vigorously enforce regulations. Utilities pushed back citing high costs of upgrading plants, consistently asking for forgiveness or extended delays of compliance. At the same time historic utilities in our area such as Penn Power, West Penn Power, were acquired by First Energy. As a result of deregulation First Energy has either sold its generation capacity to others or have placed their aging coal fired plants in shell companies. These problematic units such as the Bruce Mansfield facility in Beaver County either are shut down or go into bankruptcy. According to the New York Times, since 2017, 145 coal burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, eliminating 15 percent of the nation’s coal generating capacity, enough to power about 30 million homes. Far from bringing back jobs the down turn in coal production has translated into 5,300 coal mining jobs or nearly 10 percent being eliminated in the past 4 years. No matter the rhetoric, forces larger than any president are at work.
In turn the utilities are now purchasing or supplying electric power for much of our area, from the new natural gas fired plants in the region; Carrollton, and Wellsville Ohio, as well as the Tenaska Plant in Smithton, PA. The coal fired plants shutting down have often significant environmental cleanup issues and costs, some of which we the people will bear. This prevalent American attitude for some continues to be, provide us abundant energy at the cheapest cost, in the present moment. Negative health impacts and risks, environmental degradation and necessary cleanups have been disregarded or minimized by government, corporations and perhaps us in general. Coincidentally four days ago Peabody Coal Company asked for relief of 175 million dollars of pensions and health benefit obligations. The question now being asked by many of the younger leaders taking center stage, is this a prudent way to stewardship resources, or manage energy needs, possibly compromising the future?
However renewable advocates are not exempt from the reality of externalities. Announcing platitudes of how we will power the country through solar, wind, and green biogas with somewhat blasé or simplistic disregard of cost and displacement is counterproductive. Does in general urban power needs seemingly outweigh impacts on the existing infrastructure and rural locales? In upstate New York communities are being asked to accept siting of literally millions of solar panels to power not themselves but New York City. The rural New Yorkers power comes from renewable hydro. Almost 50 percent of American homes use clean natural gas for heat. The argument to electrify everything from automobiles and trucks to furnaces, comes with great cost and dislocation. Paradoxically these same progressives chastise California utilities for brownouts and electric disruption. Emerging from all of this is, when the wind does not blow, the sun does not shine, and battery storage is depleted, Marcellus and Utica natural gas power plants will be generating consistent and reliable electricity for us all.