Guest Commentary

Debating Trump’s energy policy: Overturning Clean Power Plan means breathing room for struggling U.S. economy

Coal can continue to play an important part in America’s energy mix, writes energy attorney and former regulator Terry M. Jarrett.
Coal can continue to play an important part in America’s energy mix, writes energy attorney and former regulator Terry M. Jarrett. Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

As a lifetime Missourian, I’ve long been concerned about our state’s ability to supply sufficient, affordable electricity to all of our homes and businesses. It was a key issue for me when I served on the Missouri Public Service Commission. And from that experience, I believe President Donald Trump made the right decision recently to halt the Clean Power Plan, which would have dismantled America’s coal fleet.

Overall, the Clean Power Plan aimed to reduce power plant carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels. The goal, of course, was to address global warming. But while that may be an important issue, the plan itself didn’t offer a rational or sensible approach. That’s because a fully implemented plan would have achieved only a theoretical 0.018 degrees Celsius reduction in global temperatures by 2100, and a less than 1 percent cut in global CO2 emissions.

The costs to Missouri would have been staggering, however, since our state currently relies on coal for 78 percent of its electricity. Under the Clean Power Plan, the wholesale price of electricity in the United States in 2020 would have been more than a third higher than in 2012 (for an average annual household increase of $680). According to Energy Ventures Analysis, America’s energy costs would have risen an extra $214 billion by 2030.

Such a massive transformation of America’s power grid would have also required $64 billion for the construction of new power lines and power plants. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has estimated the Clean Power Plan would have cost $51 billion in annual GDP, along with 224,000 jobs each year. It would have also forced 25 percent of America’s coal generation capacity off the electric grid, enough to power 24 million homes.

Many of the coal plants slated for retirement under the Clean Power Plan are running at peak capacity to meet our everyday needs. But the “renewable” power expected to replace them has yet to prove as reliable as coal in terms of scalability for electricity generation. Simply put, wind and solar remain frustratingly intermittent — since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow — and they still require backup generation from coal and gas plants. Trump’s decision to end the Clean Power Plan means that coal can now compete on a level playing field with both natural gas and subsidized renewables without having to struggle against federal regulations, too.

Coal certainly can compete, though, since today’s coal fleet is 90 percent cleaner than 30 years ago. That’s because utility companies have invested billions and billions of dollars in high-tech environmental controls to trap emissions of sulfur, mercury and particulate matter. Modern coal plants have become very efficient, essentially emitting only water vapor and carbon dioxide as they churn 24/7 to keep the lights on in homes, schools and hospitals. And thanks to developments like supercritical and ultra-supercritical boilers, along with combined cycle systems, they can also achieve far greater thermal efficiencies, resulting in lower CO2 emissions.

The effort to limit CO2 would have posed economic disruptions far greater than the global warming scenarios projected by computer models.

When such costs are weighed, Trump’s decision shouldn’t be viewed as simply a handout for the coal industry. Rather, the president is removing unreasonable regulatory impediments to an industry that continues to support an affordable supply of energy for the nation. Going forward, coal power will simply have to compete on its own environmental and economic merits.

I don’t believe Trump is trying to restore coal to its glory days. But he’s taking a prudent approach in trying to revitalize coal enough so that it can remain a valuable contributor to the nation’s energy mix.

Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.