Coal Still King in Wisconsin

(Coal strip mine in Wyoming. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kaufman

WE Energies and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission want to save electricity consumers some money, so they have this plan: the utility will burn more Wyoming/Western coal which is cheaper but dirtier (emitting more global warming gases per unit of energy) and less Appalachian/Eastern coal which is more pricey but burns cleaner. Of course, the utility and the PSC were not interested in allowing solar users to save money or other consumers to save money on the base rate of electricity earlier in the year.

Having spent $2.3 billion to build the Oak Creek power plant complex, a huge investment in coal power at a time when the world and we should be moving away from heavy fossil fuel use, the utility and the PSC say that adding another $100 million to the price tag to retro-fit Oak Creek for more Western coal is another dandy way to spend our money. But don’t worry–eventually we will see savings, because– the utility could run the plant more often! Here’s how, according to the Journal Sentinel, PSC commissioner Phil Montgomery (former American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) member) explains it:

“The ratepayers of Wisconsin have invested in this plant and the best use that it could have is to be running as much as it can, and that’s what this project does.”

As a ratepayer, I didn’t have much choice about whether or not to invest in the Oak Creek plant; in fact, I spoke at a hearing against building it. And now, as both a ratepayer and a conservationist, I would prefer that the Oak Creek coal plants run as little as possible, with total shutdown being ideal, even if that means I would have to pay considerably more for electricity, or, in other words, pay the true price of electricity. Coal is a “cheap” fuel only because we are not charged upfront for the environmental and health damages of burning it. A Harvard study on total coal power costs released in 2011 estimated that on average we all should be paying more than twice what we pay on average now.

The environmental group Clean Wisconsin told the PSC that increasing CO2 emissions at a coal plant just as the EPA prepares new regulations to reduce coal plant CO2 would not be wise. But the latest edition of the WI PSC (staffed by Gov. Walker) balked at that point of view, because, after all, as Commissioner Ellen Nowak put it, “I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to require a utility to comply with a yet-to-be-final rule.”  It would, however, be reasonable, not to say prudent, for the PSC to require the utility comply with the spirit of the eventual rule and the general scientific consensus– cut carbon emissions quickly.

Worse, though the Citizens Utility Board and PSC staff auditors recommended that the commissioners rule that WE Energies receive the standard amount of profit for the project (10.2%), the Walker commissioners ruled that the more generous 12.7% rate of profit is more in line with their reading of Wisconsin law. (Given all the bad law being conceived and passed these days in Wisconsin, we should feel fortunate that investor-owned, monopoly utility profit has not been raised ever higher.)

The only benefit of buying less coal from the Appalachian states is that Wisconsin will be less culpable in the travesty of mountaintop removal mining, which is arguably worse than the legal destruction of simple strip mining of land for coal in Wyoming and other Western states. Only God can make a mountain, but some people are willing to move mountains to preserve the profits (and pollution) of coal in Wisconsin.

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