No, It's Not All as Hard as It Looks

Yesterday morning's Tom Friedman column in the New York Times is a fantasy of what would happen if our leaders in Washington decided to start leading instead of squabbling. It closes with these lines: "What's sad is how much this is a fantasy and how easily -- with just a little political will -- it could be a reality."

You might think that Friedman's piece is glib -- surely if the problems were easy then even our broken political system would respond. But in fact there's evidence all over the landscape that America's current problems for the most part have really easy solutions (both technical and financial) that have been blocked solely by the determination of one wing of our politics -- Tea Party Republicanism -- to hold solutions hostage.

The coal and utility industries, for example, are desperately lobbying in Washington on the fable that if we clean up air and water pollution from power plants, as the EPA is proposing, then lights will go out, electric bills will go up, and workers will lose jobs. Well, we don't even have to rely on logic to disprove that one. We have evidence.

Take the Alexandria coal plant where, three weeks ago, the Sierra Club and Bloomberg Philanthropies announced our new "Beyond Coal" partnership to end coal and usher in a new clean energy future. Two weeks later, a report revealed that if the electric utilities in the DC area proceed to upgrade their transmission infrastructure as planned, the plant will no longer be needed and all of its pollution and high costs could be eliminated. Key to this is the increasing ability of large electric users to cut back their demand at moments of peak load when the Alexandria GenOn plant might otherwise be needed.

Then, yesterday morning, the American Clean Skies Foundation released a plan that shows how the Alexandria coal plant site could be redeveloped into a $450 million mixed-use development that would generate more jobs and income than the current coal plant does. Bruce Nilles, who leads the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, commented that "Each retirement of an aging coal-fired power plant is already a victory for public health and the environment. The "Potomac River Green" report shows a way to repurpose these retired plants so that they benefit the local communities and taxpayers who once lived in their shadows."

And the GenOn plant is not alone. This month, for example, the electric-grid manager for the entire 13 mid-Atlantic state region, PJM, conducted its annual auction -- this one to make sure that there will be enough power to keep the lights on and the motors humming through 2015. The conventional wisdom had been that some old, outmoded coal-fired power plants would be withdrawn from service, but that costs for the remaining coal plants -- and therefore for the electricity they provide -- would increase because of the need to install modern pollution-control equipment.

But there was a surprise. Yes, about 2,000 MW of old coal plants did not even enter the auction -- they'll be retired from baseload service. And yes, utilities proposed to spend lots of money upgrading the rest of the coal fleet. But it turns out that ratepayers won't have to pay those increased prices. Energy efficiency, specifically the increasing ability of large energy users to manage their electrical demand, can replace not only the 2,000 megawatts of coal that didn't enter the auction but also another 5,000 MW that turn out to be more expensive to upgrade than to replace through efficiency.

So 7,000 MW of coal power were taken out of the PJM baseload market -- enough coal capacity to power 2.2 million homes. That's about five percent of PJM's total peak electrical need -- replaced by already deployed energy efficiency! Those coal plants would have emitted 36 million tons of carbon dioxide, 228,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 59,000 tons of nitrogen oxides. And making even modest improvement in their pollution-control technology would have cost about $3.5 billion -- all money that ratepayers have just saved. PJM now has the opportunity to make these savings permanent -- by requiring retirements of these plants that clearly are costing ratepayers money, not delivering value.

Really, how hard was this?