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Billions in Hidden Fossil Fuel Costs Could Amplify Case for Clean Energy
Hidden costs lurk everywhere.
Buy a car on credit and pay double the listed price. Same with a house. For example, adjustable mortgages and lump sum payments were major contributors to the housing bust. And the taxes are heavy. Ask any small business owner.
Maybe that’s why we Americans like our energy costs low, or at least relatively low.
But there are also hidden costs. Harvard Medical School’s Center for Global Health and Environment released a study in February that pegged the estimated annual hidden cost of coal-fired electricity at a high of $538 billion, an extra 18 cents per year. kilowatt hour. Peswiki.com listed the commercial cost of coal power at 4.8 to 5.5 cents per kWh.
For some perspective, solar costs between 15 and 30 cents per kWh and wind between 4 and 6 cents.
“Coal carries a heavy burden,” says the report “Mining Coal, Mounting Costs.” The Harvard study took into account the health costs (11,000 deaths per year from lung cancer, heart, respiratory and kidney disease) and the environmental impacts of fly ash spills (53 from 1974 to 2008) and mountaintop removal (500 removed and 1.4 million acres transformed).
The beauty of coal is that it’s cheap, relatively simple to mine with today’s technologies, and domestic. There are also many. However, as the study points out, digging it and burning it to create electricity has drawbacks, at least with current practices. Tackling these would significantly increase the price and any increased regulation is generally opposed by the industry.
Natural gas produces better emissions and is easy on the wallet at 3.9 to 4.4 cents per kWh. National reserves are also expected to soar thanks to new techniques for fracking drilling.
Oil, on the other hand, has its own problems. As of this writing, oil prices have risen above $105 a barrel and the one-year forecast has risen to $121, according to oil-price.net. And as the growing conflict in Libya illustrates, crude oil comes at a high political cost.
According to californiagasprices.com, the dispute between Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi and eastern separatists has driven gas prices in California up 50 cents a gallon over the past month. The development worries politicians it could derail the fragile economic recovery and consumers grumble. If commodity traders remain nervous and prices are high, the cost of everything from food to services will rise.
For example, I heard on National Public Radio that several airlines have already raised fares half a dozen times this year due to rising fuel costs.
But this is a relatively transparent cost, highlighted daily by major media outlets. The less visible but no less costly is what Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, calls the “terrorist premium”. In the report “Oil and the New Economic Order”, Luft indicates that the bounty costs the United States between 65 and 85 billion dollars per year.
Petroleum receives a litany of subsidies from countries internationally that protect consumers for up to three quarters of the cost of fuel. As I wrote in a previous article, the International Energy Agency, in a report released last summer, says its analysis found that fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $557 billion dollars in 2008. This also increases costs.
Green energy, by comparison, receives a pittance in subsidies. According to the London-based research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “last year governments provided $43-46 billion in support for renewables.” This was done through tax credits, guaranteed electricity prices called feed-in tariffs, and alternative energy credits. Germany is a leader in this group with its solar feed-in tariff, but which can be reduced.
And what makes this debate always interesting are the advances improving the efficiency of solar energy. Technologies concentrating the sun’s rays and various methods of creating energy storage are increasing the ability of renewables to be competitive.
I love the “battery” concept which uses a silo filled with water and a massive counterweight that pushes the water to generate power when the sun goes down or the wind stops. The underground silo is filled with water by the energy generated by the solar or wind system.
And more traditional battery technology is making huge strides. I tweeted recently about the lithium-water battery. No kidding. It can work.
So who knows how this will evolve? Obviously, my nonprofit organization is biased. We would love to see the San Joaquin Valley take off as a leader in all things renewable, generate spin-off companies, and inspire entrepreneurs to make sense of all this harvestable energy around us. And create jobs in the process.
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