Coal fails federal agency’s economics test

A Big Rivers Electric Corp. power plant in Western Kentucky
A Big Rivers Electric Corp. power plant in Western Kentucky

Kentuckians, take note. One of our state’s long cherished notions — that a reliable energy supply depends on coal-fired power — was shredded this week by federal energy regulators appointed by coal-friendly President Donald Trump.

It’s especially critical that Kentuckians who guide economic-development efforts recognize that our old ace in the hole is no longer a sure winner or the cheapest option.

In Frankfort, smart questions about long-term contracts for coal-fired power through the city’s membership in the Kentucky Municipal Energy Agency have sparked a political conflagration.

The framing of the issue by Frankfort City Commissioner Robert Roach as a “battle between conservatives and environmental ideologues” could not be less helpful.

Energy consumers, both residential and industrial, are ill served when what should be economic decisions get gummed up with pro-coal politics, as a unanimous decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday makes clear.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry had proposed protecting coal-fired and nuclear power plants from closure because, Perry said, they are essential to maintaining a reliable, resilient grid, an argument that’s also been put forth in the Kentucky legislature.

Richard Glick, one of the four Trump appointees on the five-member FERC, summed up the commission’s view when he said that Perry’s plan “had little, if anything, to do with resilience, and was instead aimed at subsidizing certain uncompetitive electric generation technologies.”

In the last decade, 47 percent of the utility-scale power plants that were retired were coal-fueled while almost half of the utility scale capacity installed in 2017 came from renewables, mainly wind and solar.

Perry’s plea on behalf of coal-fired power also was opposed on economic grounds by an association of manufacturers, who ordinarily oppose environmental regulation.

The Industrial Energy Consumers of America, whose members claim $1 trillion in annual sales and more than 1.7 million employees, said Perry’s plan was “anti-competitive and ... would distort, if not destroy, competitive wholesale electricity markets, increase the price of electricity to all consumers, and directly impact negatively the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing.”

Kentuckians who challenge the state’s outdated conventional wisdom on energy are doing us all a favor. Local officials who demand information and take the steps to understand and master the complexities of a changing energy market are an asset to economic development — not a liability, as Roach, who is trying to remove Chair Anna Marie Pavlik-Rosen and Vice Chair Walt Baldwin from the Frankfort Plant Board, would have you believe.

Change is almost always painful, messy and confusing. But staying chained to the past is not really an option.