How will the other half live?

A solar energy salesman recently went to Washington with a couple professional environmental activists to advocate a new economic future for the North Fork Valley, a future based on replacing coal with solar energy. People lobbying for their own self-interest have every right to do so — absolutely nothing wrong with that. The specifics of their agenda, though, point to an interesting question in our national energy discussion.

Coal has provided hundreds of good jobs in Gunnison, Delta, and Montrose counties for generations. Now that industry is going away in the face of overpowering federal regulation, and the resulting closure of coal-fired power plants. The loss of thousands of jobs did not result from any reduction in our coal supplies, but from government policy. Today, the solar industry rightly sees the economic collapse of coal communities as an opportunity, a chance to sell more solar panels.

On their trip to meet with leaders in Washington, the North Fork Valley group predicted that half of their area’s power would come from renewable energy within a decade. That raises the larger national issue, namely, where will the other half come from?

These numbers are spouted as if in some kind of vacuum we could simply decide what percentage of energy comes from what sources. Government’s power is awesome, but not that awesome. The trouble with such oversimplification is that when a power plant closes, it lays off all its workers, not just half of them. It doesn’t close halfway, generating power 3.5 days a week and sitting in mothballs the other 3.5 days.

If we want half of our energy from renewables, we must still want the other half from fossil fuels. In fact, coal and gas power plants thus far remain in the mix because they are considerably cheaper, and especially because they are more dependable. Since the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day, and the wind doesn’t blow constantly, sometimes renewable generation stops and must be replaced with the older system that has been generating reliable power for over a century. Thus the need for redundancy — a mix of coal, natural gas, and renewables.

Virtually everyone in this discussion agrees that we must maintain this energy mix, including administration officials and the North Fork Valley environmental contingent. So you might think these activists would advocate keeping half of the coal mines operating. You would be wrong.

Five years ago Colorado’s coal industry had 2,000 employees and generated $86 million in royalties, $4.5 million in reclamation funds, and $28 million in taxes — all on the Western Slope. Today only a small fraction remains. The North Fork once fueled 60 percent of all Colorado electricity, but today only one mine (West Elk) remains, though its parent company has filed for bankruptcy and laid off a quarter of its employees. Environmental opponents already killed the Elk Creek mine at Somerset, once one of the largest underground operations in the country, and Bowie, near Paonia.

A proposed expansion at West Elk remains tied up in court, an environmental lawsuit claiming the mine speeds global warming. The administration is using that case as an excuse to “review” the entire federal coal policy. So the writing is on the wall for the last remaining mine in that part of the Western Slope. Not half of it — all of it. So if we are to get half of our energy needs from renewables, whence the other half?

It matters because of the economics. Many experts have warned that killing our affordable energy industries will result in huge price increases for consumers. It is happening. An Independence Institute study shows that Colorado residential electricity rates increased by a staggering 63 percent between 2001 and 2014. During that period, median income in Colorado increased only 24 percent. In other words, Colorado electric bills have increased 40 percent more than our ability to pay.

The solar executive on the D.C. trip said simply that “western Colorado coal-dependent communities will need to change as they transition economically.” Some of that change is already underway. The company says it installed more than 100 kilowatts of solar power in 2015, and will probably do even better this year.

Still, the big question remains: how will consumers, especially the poorest, pay the much higher utility bills this new future portends. Because if we proceed down this path of killing coal and other fossil fuels, renewable sources will not supply half of the country’s energy — they will supply all of it, and at radically higher prices.

Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The   Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.


COMMENTS

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Mr. Walcher places all of the blame on those he refers to as “environmentalists”.  He also asks the question as to how the “other half” will live.  While that certainly is a consideration (and an important one), another question to be asked is “How will the future live?”  That question seemingly never gets asked by such as Mr. Walcher yet, that question is not only necessary to be asked, but addressed and answered.

There is one lesson that such as Mr. Walcher never seem to learn, most probably because, not at all familiar (or seriously deficient) of the lessons history would teach us, he (as well as other like him) has never learned them.  There are several of those which everyone need to keep in mind.

The first of those is that no matter what is done or accomplished, either in one’s personal life or in one’s career, there is always a better way of doing it.  The failure to do so is little else than a lack of intellectual and emotional maturity, and very much a “fear to change”, thus holding on to the past.

The second lesson that should be learned (another which many will never learn) is that while there are those that see the need and want to change, there are many who, for no other reason than change would work to the detriment of entrenched interests, economic, political and social.  Thus, what those entrenched interests will do is fight to prevent any type of change that would threaten them.

The Western Slope has, and for decades, been subject to rather sharp rises and declines in its economy.  One would like to believe that not only the people, but its leaders as well, would have learned the lesson of (to use a cliché) of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket.  Yet, it constantly does so, and we must ask ourselves the question as to why that is.  Could it perhaps be that such is because it is still being controlled by the same “good old boy (or gal)network;  i.e. the same ones that have been in charge for decades?”

We than have those, and they are found in all locations and in every enterprise.  The are afflicted with what can only be called self-centeredness and, the “Well, it works for me, so the heck with everything and everyone else. I have mine.”  That is a unit , whether a person, a private enterprise, or a country, which has not only stopped moving forward, but has begun consuming itself, and which is on the decline.

There is a strange thing which such as Mr. Walcher (as well as many others never seem to understand.  It is that the time to consider change is when things are going well, and not after things have collapsed, as doing so all too frequently generate nothing more than “panic” solutions, “solutions” which have no view to the future, but merely to alleviate the “current pain or discomfort”.  Those can be referred to as “panic” reactions, so-called “solutions” which do not take into consideration anything but the present.

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