Editorial: Make power transition wisely as coal is replaced

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Some things are worse than getting a lump of coal in your sock for Christmas.

Like having to wear four pairs of socks, thermals, sweaters and a winter coat and hat in your own living room – because the utility can’t supply enough power, or the price has increased so much you don’t have the money to pay for it.

Such is the dilemma many Americans faced last winter and many more could face as the country goes green. The jury is still out on President Barack Obama’s “War on Coal,” but one thing’s for certain – with today’s technology, the less coal we use, the more we will pay for energy.

In September, the Obama administration proposed regulations that would require new coal-fired power plants to deploy currently nonexistent technologies to reduce their CO2 emissions. The president also directed the Environmental Protection Agency to propose rules to reduce CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired plants.

This winter’s arctic blast made for one of the coldest winters in three decades. And in February, government data showed that natural gas prices were at a four-year high. In some regions of the northeastern U.S., the price for electricity rose more than 40 times the normal rate.

Yet through all this, coal use climbed to its highest level since 2011.

And future energy price shock is predicted for consumers around the nation.

Philip Moeller, a member of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, says, “We are now in an era of rising electricity prices. If you take enough supply out of the system, the price is going to increase.”

In California, for instance, experts in the state’s energy markets say the cost of electricity could jump more than 47 percent over the next 16 years as the state shifts to renewable energy. The cost of residential electricity had already shot up 30 percent between 2006 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Which illustrates at least part of the problem: Coal is simply cheaper than natural gas. And both are cheaper and more reliable than renewables.

Any answers?

PNM’s San Juan Generating Station near Farmington could provide a model. It is one of many coal-fired plants in the country affected by EPA regulations covering haze, but work is being directed toward shutting down two of its four units and replacing them with a 177-megawatt natural-gas power generator. The two remaining coal-burning units would be upgraded with selective non-catalytic reduction technology to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions – at a great savings for New Mexico ratepayers. The utility has also been adding solar power production the past two years.

It has taken years of work, but last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed approving the plan for New Mexico, which could save the utility more than $900 million in emission controls and maintain an adequate electricity supply for this region.

Working toward cleaner sources of electricity is an important goal for the United States, but doing it intelligently, keeping ratepayers in mind, and in line with what technology permits is better than running out of power during the heat of summer or the cold of winter.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.