Sierra Club: An Ounce of Truth, a Pound of Bunk

In an online ad targeting Trump Administration energy policies, the environmental group is misleading at best.

So the environmentalist yobs at the Sierra Club have released an ad on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot, although given the obvious failures in its execution, more appropriate venues would have been Google+ or MySpace. In the ad, the club takes Energy Secretary Rick Perry--for whom they already have little affection given that he hails from Texas, the state synonymous with Big Oil--for his proposed plans to add resiliency to America's electrical grid.

For those whose eyes glaze over when they see stories like this and immediately turn the page to see what Taylor Swift has been up to, bear with me--the subject really isn't that complicated. In a word, the country's electrical grid, sucks. It's not third-world bad, to be sure, but it isn't what you'd call up to 21st century standards either. The grid is far too vulnerable to natural disasters, terrorism and electromagnetic pulse attacks--the latter of which is a real bummer when you consider that a pipsqueak nation like North Korea could potentially lob a nuclear warhead at us, detonate it at high altitude, and effectively put us in the dark for months if not years. That's why modernizing the physical structure of the grid is important, and it's good that we finally have an administration that has made it a priority.

The grid, however, is only as good as the sources of electricity that power it, which is where the Sierra Club comes in. They've got their knickers all in a swivet over what they term as "bailouts" to Big Coal and Big Nuclear, using taxpayer money to modernize plants that, according to them, are failing in the marketplace. Check it out:

It's axiomatic that the best way to sell a lie is to package it in the truth--but like a chocolate bob-bon with a dog turd in the middle, even though it may look appetizing on the outside, reality becomes glaringly obvious upon closer inspection. First off, while it's true that coal is a "dirty" technology, nuclear most certainly is not. In fact, nuclear is a ZERO emissions source of energy. You'd think that would please the people who see carbon dioxide as the Biggest Threat to Humanity since Godzilla rose from the seas, but no--it's nuclear, and therefore icky. Secondly, the regulatory restrictions placed on coal but the Obama administration have actually made it a lot cleaner. By law, coal plants have been made to install scrubbers that take the nastiest pollutants out of their emissions. But guess what? That has also made coal plants a lot more expensive to operate--which is why we've seen such a shift away from them and over to natural gas.

Thanks to fracking--which, by the way, the environmentalists also hate--natural gas is now plentiful and cheap. As a bonus, it also burns a lot cleaner than other fossil fuels. Natural gas plants also require fewer people to operate than coal and nuclear--which means they have lower fixed costs, and hence produce electricity at a lower price. Even after decades of catching up, however, natural gas is still about even with coal in terms of power generation capacity--they're both at about one-third each. Nuclear accounts for about another 20%, with the rest made up by renewables. So basically, Rick Perry wants to make sure that the plants that currently produce over half of the country's energy have been modernized enough to keep them humming along.

That seems kind of reasonable to me.

As to the Sierra Club's contention that this amounts to subsiding private industry with taxpayer dollars--well, there is a grain of truth to that. Coal, because of its relative expense--the scrubbers required to make it cleaner, the cost of getting it out of the ground, more people required to operate a plant--is less competitive than natural gas and nuclear. And since there is a long tradition of coal mining in this country, and a lot of people who depend on it to make a living, there is obvious political pressure being brought to bear by coal mining states to keep that largesse coming. I'd take their complaints more seriously, though, if they also had a problem with the massive subsidies poured into renewables, most of which are far less competitive than fossil fuels and couldn't survive without government intervention. Hell, Tesla can't even sell electric cars at a profit without tax credits from the federal government--and even with millions of dollars in federal grants, we've seen outfits like the solar panel maker Solyndra go belly up because they couldn't make ends meet. At least coal still produces electricity at rates the average Joe can afford.

At any rate, the abundance of natural gas and the attrition of coal plants over time will eventually mean those subsidies will be phased out--it's inevitable in the cycle of creative destruction. In the meanwhile, though, we'll still be depending on coal, gas and nuclear to keep electricity coming out of the socket. At around 90% availability--which means that 90% of the time, you can get power from those sources--they're not going anywhere any time soon, especially when you compare them to the roughly 30% availability of renewables. All the wishing in the world on the part of the Sierra Club isn't going to change that math.

Hey Marc -- a couple things. The statement "The grid, however, is only as good as the sources of electricity that power it" is not telling the whole story. Most interruptions in electricity supply, like 99% of them have nothing to do with the power plants, it is transmission and distribution (T&D) system failures that are most at fault. According the the Rhodium group: "Between 2012 and 2016, there were roughly 3.4 billion customer-hours impacted by major electricity disruptions. Of that, 2,382 hours, or 0.00007% of the total, was due to fuel supply problems." (http://rhg.com/notes/the-real-electricity-reliability-crisis) The DOE NOPR is meant to encourage on-site fuel supply, but this was only an issue a extremely small percentage of time. If you really want more reliability, invest in the T&D system to harden against weather-related outages.

Rhodium Group » The Real Electricity Reliability Crisis

Also, power plants are dispatched by markets is most of the US, and even before any regulations, most power plants do not have capacity factors as high as 90%. Also, many of the coal plants that are retiring were built in the '70s and are at the end of their lifetime. They are being replaced by gas units that cost 1/3 to build and at twice as efficient. It would make no sense to inject capital into a plant built 40 years ago when there are much cheaper alternatives today.

Last thing, the subsides for wind and solar are set to expire, in a step down fashion, starting in 2019. The tax break for unconventional oil and gas production, aka fracking, doesn't have an expiration date.

Thanks for the additional information! You're absolutely correct, which I'm all for hardening the delivery grid. It's actually a useful thing the federal government to do--and costs a lot less than some of the questionable activities they already spend money on.

Great article, now is the time to convince the people in DC.

The sad part is that we HAVE TO convince "the people in DC". Lately "the people in DC" don't seem to care so much about "the people" and more for their own pocket books and getting re-elected. That is truly sad.

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