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Julie Fedorchak, Published August 07 2013

Letter: Coal key to energy reliability

As a North Dakota Public Service commissioner, I am seeing firsthand the sweeping changes occurring in our electric industry. These changes aim to replace traditional power with renewable power and are driven largely by radical environmental policies in states such as Minnesota and our federal government.

Today, environmental groups and President Barack Obama seek to reduce or eliminate coal altogether, and they have been very successful through state and federal legislation and regulation. But replacing coal is not a simple goal, nor is it wise. I’m concerned that consumers have little information about the complications, risks and costs of the policy changes that stand to significantly affect them.

Coal, which is abundant and affordable, has always been the workhorse of electric generation. The world’s coal reserves can supply power for hundreds of years, and the existing infrastructure to support coal generation is vast. It includes coal mines, railroads, generation facilities and thousands of employees who run them.

While wind and other renewable sources should be part of an all-inclusive energy policy, we know wind doesn’t always blow when we need it most. Basin Electric owns about 750 megawatts of wind power. On a recent hot day, only 60 megawatts of that power was available. Without reliable backup power, wind and other renewable energy can’t exist. Power generated by ever-ready fuels, such as coal, gas or nuclear, provides the foundation for the entire grid.

Early estimates of the president’s proposed carbon policy anticipate a 33 percent increase in electric rates. When you consider the chilling effect increased power rates will have on jobs, the economy and the pocketbooks of millions of families, the negative impact of sidelining coal generation may very well be greater than estimated.

And to what end? This is the question that plagues me. I am all for innovative clean energy and conservation, but I have serious doubts about the need to aggressively regulate carbon dioxide when the scientific community is so divided about our ability and even the merits of doing so. The price is high and the real impact so uncertain.

Furthermore, while Americans endure the costs and economic fallout of policies to regulate carbon emissions, China and other developing nations are embracing fossil fuels to run their economies and provide electricity to the more than 1.5 billion people who don’t have it. China now uses more coal than the rest of the world combined. If you think China has been a competitor for trade, just wait until its people have access to the affordable power we are shunning.

Environmental groups deserve credit for triggering reforms that have made our electric industry greener and our air and water cleaner. With their prompting, companies have invested hundreds of millions in technologies to significantly reduce proven toxins, improve efficiencies and diversify fuel sources. But consumers need to understand the real life implications of Obama’s climate proposals.

The aggressive carbon regulatory regime being proposed for America is unsupported by today’s technology and ignores our huge investments in coal infrastructure. The result will hurt our global competitiveness, destroy jobs and saddle consumers with significant cost increases. All of this for a climate policy that half the scientific community disputes and half the globe is undermining.

Fedorchak is a North Dakota Public Service commissioner.