Minnesota Utility Customers May Get a 'Clean Coal' Electricity Bill Increase For Christmas

M. Eckelberg/CC BY 2.0
Night falls, again, on a clean coal investment.

Sometimes a fabulous green design fails for reasons totally outside the designer's control. The recent Solyndra solar bankruptcy exemplifies this in many people's minds. (The solar panel maker recently went under due low-ball Chinese product pricing - not from quality issues, financing, or manufacturing cost problems.) A comparable Green Design FAIL is now happening in the upper Mid-west, though without China to blame. Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that a brand new coal fired power plant costing $437 million will be remembered as the first "new U.S. coal plant built to supply power all the time that was immediately mothballed." And, it was as clean as coal can be.

Green design features of the new-but-closed Spiritwood plant:
Best-available pollution controls were used and the plant was designed to take in municipal wastewater effluent instead of fresh water for use in the steam condenser loop. Combustion equipment was top-flight on efficiency.

Why then is a brand-new, relatively clean power plant being closed?

Deregulation plays a strong role.
Older, inefficient, dirtier, coal-fired power plants on the Minnesota grid were undercutting Spiritwood on price. Today's reduced-demand market is totally outside the owners control. Add to electrical market de-regulation (in which utility commissions can no longer balance pricing in the long term interest of society), the fact that all Congressional Republicans and many Democrats have joined hands to lay down in front of EPA's coal burning regulatory train, allowing the numerous high-polluting old coal fired plants to skip modernizing pollution controls, thus externalizing costs for years more.

Money quotes from the Star-Trib.

Even critics of coal point out that Spiritwood is cleaner-burning than other operating coal plants. But free-market pricing and grid bottlenecks can mean that cleaner energy sources, even wind power, are unable to compete against dirtier generators.

"GRE is being penalized for being an environmental innovator," said Brad Crabtree, policy director for the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works with industries on environmental issues and has received funding from the co-op and other utilities. "They invested extra resources to do the right thing environmentally and to build the most efficient advanced-combustion power plant in the Midwest region, but they are not rewarded in the marketplace."

What does this mean?
Electricity market de-regulation is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it could be a very good thing for consumer pricing, if - and this is a very important caveat - fair and cost effective pollution control standards are phased over a reasonable time frame, so that power production costs do not spike, hitting low-income or jobless consumers hard in bad economic times.

This caveat is especially important now, while it is especially difficult for utilities to get loans for upgrading operating facilities. Another critical financial factor is that Republicans in Congress remain dedicated to striking ideological coup by preventing any government support in the form of loans or bonding to those utilities which want to do the right thing for the environment.

What can be done to rectify this?
Throw the pro-coal bums out next election, is what.

We'll first have to Break Camp And Get Ready To Occupy The Democratic Party.

Tags: Clean Coal | Corporate Responsibility | Economics | Energy Efficiency

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