Trump Gang Funds Dirty Coal and Nu­clear Over Re­new­ables

Trillions - - In this Issue -

Be­sides their ob­vi­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits, re­new­able en­ergy sources are cheaper to build, op­er­ate and use than fos­sil fuel and nu­clear sources and don’t carry a mas­sive cost to fu­ture tax­pay­ers.

Nu­clear plants can cost al­most as much to de­com­mis­sion as they do to build, pose se­ri­ous risks to pub­lic health while in op­er­a­tion and pro­duce mas­sive amounts of nu­clear waste that just keeps pil­ing up be­cause there is no long-term dis­posal site. Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions may have to man­age our nu­clear waste for thou­sands of years. Un­til trans­mu­ta­tion of nu­clear waste is al­lowed and nu­clear plant de­sign is greatly sim­pli­fied, nu­clear is by far the most ex­pen­sive way to pro­duce elec­tric­ity. Saner coun­tries, like Ger­many, are clos­ing all their nu­clear plants.

Burn­ing coal to pro­duce elec­tric­ity does not be­long in the 21st cen­tury. It is filthy and too ex­pen­sive when all costs are con­sid­ered. The mer­cury from coal-fired power plants has con­tam­i­nated most of the planet and will dam­age life, in­clud­ing hu­mans, for hun­dreds of years as it con­tin­ues to cir­cu­late through the food chain and en­vi­ron­ment. The CO2 and other emis­sions from coal-fired power plants are the major cause of global warm­ing and run­away cli­mate change.

Clean re­new­able en­ergy is by far the most in­tel­li­gent choice, but it is not as prof­itable to some of the oli­garchy in the short term.

A new set of reg­u­la­tory changes re­cently an­nounced by Trump’s Depart­ment of En­ergy will en­sure that the United States con­tin­ues to be bur­dened with dirty ex­pen­sive en­ergy merely to en­rich a few Trump sup­port­ers.

On Septem­ber 29, En­ergy Sec­re­tary Rick Perry – a man who, if noth­ing else, has proven he def­i­nitely doesn’t know much about this depart­ment that he once planned to scut­tle if elected Pres­i­dent – made the first of a se­ries of fairly bizarre moves. He pro­vided

a to­tal of $3.7 bil­lion of loan guar­an­tees to three Ge­or­gia util­i­ties that are try­ing to fin­ish con­struc­tion on two nu­clear re­ac­tors at the state’s Alvin W. Vog­tle elec­tric gen­er­at­ing plant.

The three com­pa­nies in­volved are Ge­or­gia Power, a sub­sidiary of South­ern Co., which is be­ing given $1.67 bil­lion in loan guar­an­tees; Oglethorpe Power, with $1.6 bil­lion of loan guar­an­tees com­ing; and Mu­nic­i­pal Elec­tric Author­ity of Ge­or­gia, which, via three of its sub­sidiaries, is re­ceiv­ing $415 mil­lion in loan guar­an­tees.

The project has al­ready been given $8.3 bil­lion in loan guar­an­tees. With the boon­dog­gle project run­ning over bud­get and be­hind sched­ule (the worst pos­si­ble of project sit­u­a­tions) and West­ing­house, the main en­gi­neer­ing com­pany in­volved, hav­ing al­ready de­clared bank­ruptcy, one might think that giv­ing more loan guar­an­tees to a group that has al­ready proven it can­not man­age things well is a bad idea.

For Perry and Trump, how­ever, this is just an­other ex­am­ple of ig­nor­ing the value of chang­ing course when the sit­u­a­tion de­mands it, per­haps even to re­new­able and far cleaner, safer en­ergy al­ter­na­tives. The nu­clear in­dus­try, which hides be­hind the veil of claim­ing it rep­re­sents clean en­ergy – one of the stranger state­ments one can make about it – says it is im­por­tant to fin­ish the work here. One rea­son they throw out is that the AP1000 type of re­ac­tor is from a new gen­er­a­tion. They tout this pri­mar­ily be­cause ap­par­ently even if some­thing is un­safe and the com­pa­nies build­ing it can­not seem to get their acts to­gether to do any­thing on time or cost, at least the de­sign they are build­ing is new. A sec­ond rea­son is that the project would cre­ate a lot of jobs – 6,000 con­struc­tion jobs are ex­pected for such a mas­sive and com­plex en­ergy-gen­er­at­ing fa­cil­ity, and 800 per­ma­nent jobs are likely once the project is com­pleted (also a di­rect re­sult of the com­plex nature of the sys­tems in­volved).

And if that were not bad enough, Perry is also claim­ing that coal and en­ergy plants are, in some sense, at least, part of our re­li­able en­ergy pro­duc­tion. His logic then fol­lows that, un­like other en­ergy sources, like so­lar or wind, they de­serve some sort of breaks that even go be­yond the in­creased loan guar­an­tees for the Ge­or­gia nu­clear fa­cil­ity.

This is why he re­cently asked the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion (FERC) to agree on new rules for coal and nu­clear plants that add to elec­tric grid re­li­a­bil­ity. Perry claims that th­ese “baseload” plants rep­re­sent an en­ergy foun­da­tion of sorts and should be able to charge for that dif­fer­ently than other sources. They should, he said in his re­quest, be al­lowed to “[re­cover] fully al­lo­cated costs and thereby con­tinue to pro­vide the en­ergy se­cu­rity on which our na­tion re­lies.”

One might hope that FERC, which ap­pears to op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently of the En­ergy Depart­ment, might push back on what seems to be an ob­vi­ous dis­tor­tion of re­al­ity. That would, un­for­tu­nately, be false hope.

An im­por­tant rea­son for this is that FERC is overly be­holden to the tra­di­tional en­ergy in­dus­tries of fos­sil fu­els and nu­clear power. An­other is that this agency’s cur­rent chair­man, Neil Chatterjee, was ap­pointed to the agency by none other than Perry him­self.

Dur­ing an Au­gust 2017 FERC pod­cast, Chatterjee sig­naled how he might drive de­ci­sions like this one. In that “broad­cast,” he said, “I be­lieve baseload power should be rec­og­nized as an es­sen­tial part of the fuel mix.” He went on to say, “I be­lieve that gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing our ex­ist­ing coal and nu­clear fleet, need to be prop­erly com­pen­sated to rec­og­nize the value they pro­vide to the sys­tem.”

What Perry and oth­ers are do­ing is cre­at­ing dif­fer­ent classes of en­ergy that sep­a­rate out as “more re­li­able” and a base­line source ver­sus “less re­li­able” and non-base­line sources. The con­clu­sion Perry and his team have jumped to – or maybe “started with,” fol­lowed by back­ing into prov­ing it – is that the old forms of en­ergy are ac­tu­ally more re­li­able and de­serve more fi­nan­cial support, one way or an­other.

As Mark Kre­sowik, a re­gional deputy di­rec­tor for the Sierra Club in its north­east re­gion, said about the topic in a re­cent in­ter­view, “In­stead of coal and nu­clear plants hav­ing to com­pete against cheaper, cleaner sources, cus­tomers would be forced to pay for un­nec­es­sary plants.” He went on to say: “I think that states that currently com­pete and use the mar­kets would leave. I cer­tainly would ex­pect states to walk away from or­ga­nized mar­kets. It would be the end of com­pet­i­tive mar­kets in the United States of Amer­ica. That’s not even an ex­ag­ger­a­tion.”

On the other side of the ar­gu­ment, Paul Bai­ley, the pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Amer­i­can Coun­cil for Clean Coal Elec­tric­ity, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sents all things re­lated to the in-re­al­ity “dirty coal” elec­tric­ity pro­duc­ers, could not be more ju­bi­lant. In re­cent in­ter­view, he said, “The coal fleet has large stock­piles of coal that help to en­sure grid re­silience and re­li­a­bil­ity,” clearly pick­ing his words care­fully to match the dis­torted rhetoric of Trump pup­pet Perry.

Bai­ley’s words are par­tic­u­larly strange when one tries to frame them com­pared to their re­new­able en­ergy al­ter­na­tives. How is it that hav­ing “large stock­piles of coal” makes this sort of “grid re­silience and re­li­a­bil­ity” so de­serv­ing of cost ab­sorp­tion? Did we all miss some­thing? Aren’t “large stock­piles of pho­tons” stream­ing down from the sun or “large stock­piles of wind,” which have been around for count­less mil­len­nia, some­how at least equally re­silient and re­li­able?

It is cer­tainly true that the wind does not al­ways blow and the sun does not al­ways shine in the same spot. But it is also true that re­new­able en­ergy can be stored, and util­ity scale en­ergy stor­age is al­ready be­ing de­ployed. New en­ergy stor­age tech­nolo­gies com­pletely negate the need for dirty “baseload” en­ergy sources.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic threats of dirty en­ergy are not just com­ing at the fed­eral level; they are also com­ing at the state level. A good ex­am­ple is the re­cent ap­proval of the Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion of Ohio (PUCO) for a mas­sive fi­nan­cial bailout for Firsten­ergy Corp. and its share­hold­ers.

Firsten­ergy has a long his­tory of mis­man­age­ment and crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, and it seeks to pass the as­so­ci­ated costs on to its cus­tomers. In 2011, it paid $1.5 bil­lion as part of a set­tle­ment to end a law­suit filed by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency for fail­ing to in­stall pol­lu­tion-con­trol equip­ment when up­grad­ing its coal­burn­ing plants. To help Firsten­ergy re­cover that loss and oth­ers, and to keep its fail­ing W. H. Sam­mis coal and Davis-besse nu­clear plants op­er­at­ing, PUCO will re­quire Firsten­ergy’s ratepay­ers to shell out an ex­tra $204 mil­lion per year for three to five years.

In­stead of en­rich­ing the share­hold­ers of large ob­so­lete util­i­ties, the money could be in­vested in re­new­able en­ergy.

The United States des­per­ately needs an in­tel­li­gent en­ergy pol­icy that ben­e­fits the na­tion – not the oli­garchy. But given the lu­nacy in Wash­ing­ton and many state cap­i­tals, that is not go­ing to hap­pen. So it is up to in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties to build their own in­tel­li­gent en­ergy sys­tems.

Re­new­able en­ergy has never been more af­ford­able than it is right now. But you’d bet­ter buy your so­lar sys­tem now, be­fore Trump im­poses im­port du­ties on cheap im­ported so­lar pan­els and be­fore Repub­li­cans at the state level leg­is­late more ob­sta­cles to clean en­ergy.

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