Robert Ehlert: Coal may be dirty, but it’s the best option available

December 4, 2013 

Robert Ehlert

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The funny thing about alternative energy sources is that they are not an alternative if you don’t have access to them or if you can’t afford them.

Or can’t afford to count on them.

Individuals can and do take advantage of clean sources of wind and solar technology. I think it’s great, and I am jealous. Who doesn’t want the option to be self-reliant and send power to the grid instead of paying to consume it? In just the right circumstances, a person could generate power to run a house and charge an electric car and have juice left over to sell to Idaho Power.

I grew up in an area that was, at times, heated with coal. From my recollection, there was nothing clean about it. You didn’t love coal, you tolerated it.

When the coal company made deliveries, there was no greater spectacle for the seven kids and two adults in my tiny, three-bedroom house. The truck pulled up, men loaded wheelbarrows full of chunky black coal and then dumped them down the coal chute into the basement bin. It smelled like sulphur and sounded like bowling balls careering into the belly of my home.

It didn’t take long to collect soot on our hands or feet as we played in the basement on those winter days when it was too cold to go outside. We had a faithful old Maytag washing machine, but no dryer. The freshly washed clothes hung on lines in the basement — within feet of that dusty old coal bin. It is hard to imagine coal dust never soiled our clothes drying on the line or entered our lungs as we romped in that dingy old basement.

But we were warm. And we had power because the utility company burned coal to generate electricity. We, and they, burned coal because it was what we could afford, and it was what was available.

That is essentially what the Idaho Public Utilities Commission said this week when it granted Idaho Power a certificate to make $130 million in environmental upgrades to its Jim Bridger coal plant in Wyoming. Coal is what we have now, but it’s not the first or the best or the cleanest choice.

The PUC did deny Idaho Power’s request — for now — to have ratepayers foot the bill for the improvements, because current and looming clean-air regulations could drive higher the cost of continuous environmental retrofitting. The PUC wanted the risk of this venture to be on Idaho Power, not ratepayers. The utility will have to return to the PUC to ask for permission to bill its customers for those costs.

Well-meaning environmental groups are touting that side of the PUC’s decision this week. They are pointing out that the PUC put Idaho Power on notice that this trip down coal memory lane is not going to be underwritten by the public without further study and monitoring.

But the PUC also knows Idahoans like their inexpensive energy. Generating hydropower is pretty well tapped out. Renewable energy sources might become more available and affordable down the road, but what about now?

Yes, Idaho Power has been sent a message: We’ll tolerate coal, but you need a plan to lose the habit.

Coal’s detractors got a message, too: Throwing a tantrum against coal won’t generate electricity.

“Cost-effective replacement resources that are dispatchable and reliable year-round do not presently exist nor could they be brought on line before the required dates,” were the words in the PUC statement, which also noted the health and environmental costs of coal. “However, Idaho Power’s analysis presented and (commission) staff’s investigation confirmed that investment in selective catalytic reduction controls is presently the least-cost, least-risk alternative to both reduce environmental effects and allow reliable electric service to continue.”

The coal alternative is the available alternative until something more acceptable comes along.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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