The Trump administration is letting the coal industry compete again, and that’s a big win for consumers. Under President Barack Obama, the nation’s de facto energy policy was designed to make it more difficult and costly to produce coal and use its energy. The result was just as Obama promised: Over 400 mines shut down and more than 80,000 U.S. miners lost their jobs.
While bottom-floor natural gas prices, along with taxpayer subsidies for wind and solar power, have contributed to the coal industry’s struggles, the role played by federal regulatory policy should not be overlooked. If not for the timely and unexpected emergence of the U.S. shale revolution, those policies could have been devastating for consumers.
Despite the Obama administration’s success in putting the thumbscrews to the nation’s most affordable source of power, electricity prices — for the most part — did not spike. The former president’s allies have pointed to this absence of rising electricity prices as vindication for their agenda. But the absence of soaring electricity prices was by chance, not carefully constructed policy. America’s shale revolution, and our newly abundant supply of natural gas, took up the slack from the chokehold on coal.
Today, many in the energy industry assume natural gas will stay cheap. They may well be right, but we shouldn’t bet affordable energy on it. A shift to over-reliance on natural gas carries real risks to affordable energy.
In a diverse economy of more than 300 million people, the last thing we need is to push all our energy chips to one square on the table. A balanced energy mix from multiple sources provides stability to electricity rates and shields consumers from potential price spikes from one fuel source.
High-efficiency, low-emission coal technology — which is already commercially proven and available — could help us maintain low-cost energy while improving the environmental performance of the nation’s coal fleet. Pulverized coal combustion systems, integrated gasification systems and other new technologies allow coal plants to operate at higher temperatures and operate more efficiently. The average efficiency of the current fleet is 33 percent. Some new coal plants in Europe and Japan using advanced technology are achieving efficiencies in the 42-46 percent range. That jump in efficiency can reduce emissions by 20 percent or more.
With many of our nation’s coal power plants getting long in the tooth, the timing couldn’t be better to welcome investment in the new, cleaner, far more efficient coal technologies that will protect our energy mix and serve our nation for generations.
Coal power plants still provide a third of U.S. electricity, and we desperately need that reliable, low-cost power. Dialing back regulatory overreach that did such damage to the coal industry was an important first step. Maintaining coal’s contribution to our energy mix and ensuring our energy diversity should be next. A balanced energy mix that ensures affordable and reliable energy must be the focus of the nation’s energy policy once again.
Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a nonpartisan, free-market consumer advocacy organization.
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- On June 6, 2017