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Coal and nuclear power belong in Utah's energy policy portfolio

This article was published in the Deseret News.

William F. Shughart II

Now is the time for Utah to recognize the environmental benefits of using advanced coal-burning technologies and nuclear power to generate electricity. Both are essential in any serious effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Coal and nuclear power have for decades kept the world’s lights on and its factories operating. In recent years, though, coal and nuclear programs in the United States have labored under ever more burdensome government regulations, while solar and wind technologies – the fair-haired children of environmental activists – have been subsidized generously by the public sector.

Utah has followed Washington’s lead by adopting policies encouraging the use of so-called renewable energy sources, going so far as to approve state tax credits for converting wind power and sunlight into electricity. But such technologies supply only a small fraction (about 4 percent) of the electric power currently. It is loony to think that even heavily taxpayer-subsidized wind and solar power will displace coal and natural gas anytime soon.

The reality is that coal is both abundant and affordable. It also is much more environmentally friendly than it once was owing to the development of new and more efficient coal combustion technologies, such as the ultra-supercritical steam cycle and the integrated coal gasification combined cycle. Utah is in an ideal position to exploit those technological advances and then market them globally.

Imagine the payback if carbon capture-and-storage technologies or advanced methods of burning coal were demonstrated successfully at a coal plant here. Coal accounts for 40 percent of the world’s electricity output. Helping other states and nations to use more efficient coal-combustion technologies not only serves the broader interests of humanity, but also represents a potential financial windfall for Utahns.

Yet the state’s politicians and policymakers have chosen to go in the opposite direction. Perhaps a good excuse can be found in the Obama administration’s announcement of a “climate stabilization plan” (otherwise known as the president’s “war on coal”), which envisions a future wherein most if not quite all of the nation’s energy needs are met by wind farms, the sun, geothermal power, ocean waves, algae, plant materials and other renewable sources.

Never mind that coal and nuclear energy combined still provide 60 percent of the power transmitted over the nation’s electric grid. Never mind that solar and wind together would account for far less than 4 percent of total in the absence of government subsidies and tax breaks. Never mind that the sun and the wind provide power only on days when the weather cooperates, and therefore can’t supply the country’s base-load electricity needs 24/7. Consequently, expensive large-scale energy storage capacity and backup energy generators, such as gas-powered turbines, are required before the president’s dream possibly can become reality.

Nuclear power is another viable option to coal. As the demand for electricity at home and abroad grows, new nuclear plants are being built. Four reactors – two each in Georgia and South Carolina – are under construction, and two others have been approved for construction in Florida. All of the reactors use an advanced “AP1000” design, in which a plant’s components are built off-site in factories and then delivered for assembly. Worries that new nuclear plants cannot be built on time and on budget therefore are fading.

A number of other countries, including China and Great Britain, likewise are building AP1000 reactors, using U.S. expertise. Why is Utah behind the nuclear curve?

Promoting advanced coal-burning technologies and nuclear power is a better strategy for reducing carbon emissions in Utah and the nation as a whole than subsidizing the manufacture and use of politically correct “green” energy sources.

Despite regulatory challenges, coal and nuclear aren’t going away. The need for both is stronger than ever and Utah can be a leader instead of a follower along the path to a cheap, clean and more stable energy future.

William F. Shughart II, J. Fish Smith professor in public choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business, is research director and senior fellow of The Independent Institute in Oakland, California.