ThinkProgress Makes the Case for Coal

In a recent ThinkProgress blog post, Joe Romm makes a stunning admission—he believes that zero carbon sources such as wind and solar will never be “significantly cheaper than existing coal power” in “a timescale that could matter to humanity.” That’s why the point is to increase the cost of using coal, natural gas, and other carbon dioxide-emitting sources through taxes or regulation.

Romm’s comments come as a critique of Google engineers who figured out that their RE<C project (a project to make renewable energy less expensive than coal) “simply won’t work.” Here’s an excerpt from Romm’s piece:

Google’s goal was aimed at developing renewable sources that were simultaneously cheaper than existing coal-fired power plants — and dispatchable, too! Although Google’s RE<C website and 2007 news release don’t clarify the matter, the Google engineers say they were focused on research into “how a new energy technology could perform … a lot more cheaply than an existing coal-fired power plant already does.”

I point this out mainly because the goal of getting a new carbon-free energy technology to market at a price significantly cheaper than existing coal power … is widely believed to be impossible in a timescale that would matter to humanity. [Romm’s emphasis] Back in the mid-1990s, I helped run what was then the largest R&D program in the world for developing carbon-free energy technology at the Department of Energy. I never met anyone there or in the past two decades with any actual R&D experience who ever thought such a goal was either plausible — or necessary.

After all, if you have already bought and paid for a coal plant (or indeed any fossil fuel plant), the cost of operation is mostly the cost of extracting and delivering fossil fuels. How precisely could some new carbon-free power plant built entirely from scratch possibly be as cheap as that, let alone be “vastly lower” in cost (let alone be both cheaper and dispatchable)? Answer: It probably couldn’t — certainly not in the short 4-year window Google gave the effort.

That is why pretty much every serious technology and policy analyst in the world has written that if your goal is to avoid catastrophic warming, you need some price on carbon or some regulatory policy that helps speed the shut down of coal plants before the end of their theoretical lifetime. [emphasis added]

In other words, the goal of promoting and subsidizing green energy is not to make it cost-effective–Romm believes it will not be cost effective in any timescale that matters. Instead, Romm and his travelers want to increase the cost of the cost-effective and reliable energy that we use.

The problem is that energy is the lifeblood of modern society. It gives us light, heat, and the ability to do work in ways that were unimaginable in generations past. Driving up the cost of this energy will harm all Americans, especially lower income Americans.

Travis Fisher and Alex Fitzsimmons authored this post.

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