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OPINION - Power swap

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  The next time you drive on Business 51 between Cedar Creek and Kronenwetter, take a close look at the Weston Power Plant. It's a series of coal fired boilers - the exact type that are being targeted by a series of executive orders announced by President Obama this week.

Take in how sprawling the power plant complex is. It represents a huge investment in shareholder dollars - and rate-payers, too - since the cost of generating power is a factor in all of our electric bills. These are facilities that were built to exacting federal standards, and operate under a strict permitting process. Now the goalposts are being moved. I'm amazed that all of that capital could be put at risk by presidential fiat.

About the only thing that's good about the green-energy policies announced on Tuesday is that they're executive orders. They can be undone by the next occupant of the White House. But even that is not as easy as it sounds. Mothballing and then re-starting a coal-fired power plant isn't like turning on or off a switch. Some power companies will want to decommission their coal-boilers and get non-performing assets off their books. That power capacity will be lost and may never come back.

There are two main problems with a pedal-to-the-metal green energy agenda. First, making coal obsolete fails to take into account the progress that's been made at limiting coal emissions. The difference in smokestack pollution between Weston One and the new Weston Four is night-and-day. And both are powered by a domestic-produced and plentiful fuel source. The other problem is there are no viable replacements for coal plants that go off-line. One power plant represents thousands of spinning windmills or hundreds or square-feet of solar arrays. While the wind and the sun are clean power sources. But they are also not-ready-for-prime-time. They're still inefficient and very expensive compared to fossil fuels. 

Someday the technology will improve to a point where green energy is viable. I'd actually cheer for it. A large government role in research and development is appropriate. But starting the process now of trading real-life power for wishful thinking is economically reckless.

Chris Conley