Thursday, January 30, 2014

Assessing the True Cost of the Holcomb Power Plant

My op-ed "The True Cost of Holcomb" appeared in the 1/30/2014 Wichita Eagle, but the editing of the last several paragraphs unfortunately deleted some key subtleties and acknowledgement that transitioning to a renewable economy is difficult. Though I recognize space restrictions drive such editing decisions. I've included the full text of the original below for those that are interested:

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is attempting an end run around the state Supreme Court’s ruling last October that the Holcomb coal fired power plant permit did not demonstrate compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) or the newer Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) emission limits ( The KDHE’s permit addendum (subject to public comment through February 19) questionably claims that new modeling would demonstrate compliance with the NAAQS without requiring any additional modeling. And the addendum requires compliance with the HAP emission limits, but we have no clear understanding how Sunflower will accomplish this.

Nor does any of this address green house gas emissions or research questioning the need for additional power plants at all. According to analysis by Architecture2030 (, assuming the Building Sector makes modest improvements in energy efficiency (a conservative estimate) the U.S. won’t need additional power plant generating capacity until 2025.

The fossil fuel lobby continues to support actions against renewable energy, clean technology and associated energy efficiency and environmental regulations/standards. Another Kansas example includes efforts last session (and likely again this session) by state legislators and related interests to modify or repeal the Renewable Energy Standards Act / Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).

Nationally such efforts are exemplified by the recent attacks on the US Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) revised “social cost of carbon” (SCC), which is an estimate of climate change damages resulting from carbon pollution (  As pointed out by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the criticisms leveled against the SCC fall flat, with most economists who have weighed in pointing out the SCC is an overly conservative estimate of the cost to society. The real motivation for these attacks stems from the increased SCC values tipping things in favor of cleaner energy. Once these revised climate change costs are added to the cost of electricity generation, society pays less for cleaner versus dirtier forms of energy (i.e., coal).

We have subsidized fossil fuels for decades by not accounting for their true costs to society in the fuel/energy costs we pay. Government involvement, through such things as the SCC or Kansas’ RPS, simply begins to level the playing field. And as regulatory agencies increasingly account for climate costs, this will inevitably lead to fewer profits for the fossil fuel industry (unless they adapt).

Yes, there are economic and social/cultural implications. Fossil fuels are, unfortunately, still the life blood of our economy. A transition away from them will impact industries and jobs, as well as intellectual traditions focused around the extraction, transportation and burning of fossil fuels. And it’s true the Holcomb power plant would mean new jobs for this area, but we haven’t adequately accounted for its true cost. A publication by the National Conference of State Legislatures ( points out that the Kansas consequences of climate change within a generation include increased aquifer depletion and severe weather, decreased agricultural production, increased air pollution and associated respiratory illnesses. Flooding increases alone could cost Kansas farmers an additional $150 million annually by 2032.

It’s time we recognize that fossil fuels are a dead end and accelerate the shift to a more energy efficient, renewable economy. The transition is already underway with many organizations spear heading the process, including the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

For the skeptics, why do you think fossil fuel corporations hedge their bets by investing in renewable/clean tech ( while also funding the opposition? They understand the science of climate change, see the writing on the wall and are attempting to position themselves for the inevitable transition while delaying it for as long as possible.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

More Comprehensive Assessments of Human Activity Needed

I’m not aware of what long term economic/environmental & social/cultural impacts went into determining how much the royalty fee should be increased, but in general I support such actions. While I know many in the building/construction industry will disagree, there is a growing recognition that we must do a better job accounting for the true financial costs of the environmental and social/cultural impacts our actions have - short term and long term.
One example of this that takes a long term view is the social cost of carbon (SCC -, the government’s very conservative estimate of climate change damages resulting from carbon pollution, given in dollars per ton of CO2.
The negative reactions to such broader, more comprehensive assessments of human activity are understandable - it impacts the financial bottom line for many companies and individuals. But its the only way to ensure a long term viability of not just our physical environment, but also for society as a whole.