The Devastating Cost of Not Switching to Clean Energy

Nathan Siemers/CC BY-SA 2.0

Clean energy is just too ... yawn ... expensive. You've heard that before, certainly. Clean energy critics have been harping on that line since the first solar panel rolled off the assembly line decades ago, but the charge has picked up steam over the last few years, ironically, as renewable sources like wind and solar have grown more abundant and drawn closer to cost competitiveness, or grid parity.

But there are two gigantic reasons why clean energy is anything but too expensive, despite the fact that we may pay less for coal-fired power on our electric bills.

See, two different articles caught my eye today. First was Bjorn Lomborg's 'Wind Falls', an article about how expensive wind power is in comparison to fossil fuels, especially natural gas. Lomborg makes the usual arguments; wind is too inefficient, it's more expensive than coal, and it's unreliable because the wind isn't always blowing. Now, there's plenty of evidence that smarter grid technology is getting much better at matching supply to demand, that costs are still coming down (though not as fast as we'd like) as competition grows and production continues to scale up, and that efficiency will continue to improve with technological advances. And surely it's too early to make such broad denouncements of offshore wind power, which holds vast potential, as infrastructure costs will likely fall with continued deployment and expansion.

But even with all that, wind might not beat out coal, which, by all counts, seems really, really cheap. And here's the problem, outlined in the second piece I happened upon, Counting the cost - the hidden price of coal power by John Timmer at ArsTechnica: it's really not. Coal unloads all kind of costs onto the public that coal companies never have to pay for: pollution, health problems, environmental damage, infrastructure wear and tear, etc. I outlined these many devastating externalities in my own post, Unearthing the True Cost of Fossil Fuels, but Timmer has some good stats here, especially pertaining to mountaintop removal mining:

-Each year, the US sets off the equivalent of 20-30 atomic bombs worth of explosives, effectively obliterating entire features of its own landscape
-over 500 peaks gone, 2,000 miles of streams eliminated, and over 140 billion gallons of coal slurry currently held in storage ponds
And that's to say nothing of the health impacts, which experts estimate cost the American public up to $500 billion a year—the asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory failure suffered by millions of Americans as a result of inhaling coal pollution has real costs, after all.

Include all those costs into coal's (or oil's) price tag, and suddenly a renewable source like wind is a lot cheaper than coal. Like, way, way cheaper. But clean energy skeptics like Lomborg get away with ignoring fossil fuel externalities primarily for one simple reason: they've historically been ignored. The tendency to discount the true cost of coal is deeply embedded in the status quo, both politically and economically. It's simply more convenient that way. But the truth is that fossil fuels impose a devastating—and very real—cost onto the public, and if there were any justice, it'd be factored into the price of the energy they create.

But that's just one of the reasons not switching to clean energy is devastatingly expensive, and I promised two. Here's the second, and I'll keep this one brief: Climate change. The costs of dealing with climate change are going to be enormous, as numerous climate economists have shown, and it would be much cheaper to mitigate its impacts than wait to grapple with adapting to a much warmer, more volatile world.

Under the current global economic regime, wind power may indeed be more expensive than coal power. But that cost differential is nothing compared to the kind of resources it will take to protect shorelines, adapt infrastructure to changing climes, orchestrate organized evacuations in coastal regions, shepherd climate refugees to new homes, exert military resources to maintain stability in newly volatile regions stricken with food shortages and droughts, and so on and so forth.

We simply cannot afford to remain tethered to fossil fuels—they're doing much too much damage to the public right now, and they'll do even more in the long-term.

Tags: Clean Energy | Coal | Renewable Energy