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Marcel Harmon: The true cost of Holcomb

  • Published Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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

Nor does any of this address greenhouse-gas emissions or research questioning the need for additional power plants at all. According to analysis by Architecture 2030, 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 and 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 portfolio standard.

Nationally such efforts are exemplified by the recent attacks on the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s revised “social cost of carbon,” which is an estimate of climate-change damages resulting from carbon pollution. The real motivation for these attacks stems from the increased cost 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, such as coal.

We have subsidized fossil fuels for decades by not accounting for their true costs to society in the fuel and energy costs we pay. Government involvement, through such things as social costs or Kansas’ renewable portfolio standard, 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 it adapts).

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.

Marcel Harmon of Lawrence is an anthropologist and engineer.

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