Four Strange-But-True Stories

Last month’s column, “Opinions à la Carte,” prompted an unusually high number of emails from readers. Unexpectedly, the responses to the different format were universally favorable. In my decade of writing these editorials, this was the first time reader response was unanimous. It seems you favor bite-sized appetizers rather than a single, large portion of opinion. To assuage your appetite, these four stories caught my eye over the past month. My virtual door is always open. Send your comments or ideas to me at robertp@powermag.com.

UK Green Madness Continues

The coal-fired Drax power station, the largest in the UK, burns 38,000 tons of coal a day and supplies 7% of the UK’s power needs. New UK renewable standards forced the plant to shut down the first unit in April to begin a $1.1 billion conversion of its six boilers from burning coal to burning wood chips. Here’s the rub: The plant will ultimately burn 60% more than the entire UK annual wood supply, so most of the wood chips will be harvested from U.S. forests, shipped by boat 3,000 miles across the pond, and then hauled by train to the plant site.

The idea seems ludicrous until you follow the money. To boost the use of “carbon neutral” fuels, the UK government agreed to give the same near-100% “renewable subsidy” that now goes to onshore wind farms to coal plant owners that make the fuel switch. A new UK carbon tax, starting at $24.80 per metric ton and doubling by 2020, took effect April 1 and also spurred the conversion decision. UK news sources reported that about half a million people were unable to pay their rising energy bills last winter; many resorted to burning used books in their hearths because it was cheaper than burning coal.

Environmentalists Trigger German Coal Rebound

The rapidly increasing price of electricity in Germany (currently 35¢/kWh for households, 17¢/kWh for industry, on average) has flattened that country’s economy and forced many large industrial companies to find new off-shore locations, often as not in the U.S. Load migration coupled with lucrative feed-in tariffs paid mostly by residential rate payers has accelerated rate increases, with no end in sight. Also, the EU’s moribund economy has deflated the cost of CO2 emission allowances, from about €35.90 in 2008 to about €3 today, which means coal-fired generation is now the country’s cheapest electricity supply option.

Ironically, the same German environmentalists who succeeded in coaxing trillion-dollar subsidies for wind and solar and convinced the government to close the country’s nuclear plants have unpredictably caused German utilities to build more coal-fired plants—up to 25 new plants were reported by one German news source. It’s no wonder that the Washington Post calls the EU energy policy the “green-energy basket case.”

EPA’s “Sue and Settle” Sidesteps Congress

Since 2008, environmentalists have adopted the tactic of filing lawsuits to further their overreaching regulatory goals rather than pursuing change through the legislative or regulatory process, as Congress intended. The process only works when you have an administration that is sympathetic to the goals of those filing the suits. The sue-and-settle process sidesteps the regulatory rule-making process by bring suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, for missing a regulatory deadline. The EPA then enters negotiation with the group that brought the lawsuit to reach a settlement, which is then approved by the federal court. The agency next goes into overdrive to produce new regulations to comply with the court order, all the while blaming the environmental group or the court for “requiring” the new regulations.

In 60 sue-and-settle cases filed from 2009 through 2012, the EPA never defended itself in court, allowing the demands of the organization that brought the lawsuit to prevail (34 of these cases alone were filed by the Sierra Club). In each case, the EPA failed to disclose the lawsuits to Congress, stakeholders, or the Office of Management and Budget, as required by law, until the consent decree was finalized. So much for President Obama’s January 2009 promise that his administration would be “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.” Congress is now considering legislation to put an end to this practice.

Job Creation Promise Falls Flat

Do you remember when in 2008, President Obama promised to create 5 million jobs over 10 years by investing stimulus funds into “shovel ready” projects? You are surely familiar with the many companies that have gone bust after taking taxpayer money (Solyndra is just the most infamous). Often overlooked are those job creation promises. In early May, the Department of Energy (DOE) quietly released on its website a list of loan guarantee projects with the number of documented permanent jobs created. A quick analysis of the data shows that for the $15.99 billion spent on renewable projects since 2009, DOE Section 1705 (renewable projects) loan guarantees have produced only 1,188 permanent jobs—a cost of $13.46 million per job! The data once again evidences that the federal government cannot compete with private enterprise when it comes to picking technology winners and permanent job creation.

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s editor-in-chief.