Summer 2010: Clutching ill-fitting yellow hard hats, we followed a small clump of tourists through the hallways and offices of Usibelli Coal Mine, accumulating a pile of cheerily-worded pamphlets. In between pictures of giant earth movers and aerial shots of the mine, was a simple graph, sweeping downward from left to right. Our tour guide paused here, proudly pointing out the correlation that seemed obvious:
States that use more coal power have cheaper electricity.
Most of the tourists glanced at it briefly, then wandered on. We lingered. I noted a few obvious outliers – the hydropower-dependent states of the Pacific Northwest had cheaper power than pretty much anywhere else. Beyond that, there wasn’t much information. What year was this data from? What other factors might be involved?
The Big Idea
At Ground Truth Trekking, we might be best known for our crazy expeditions to far-flung corners of Alaska. But all of us were trained as scientists. And we’ve been researching Alaska coal issues for a few years now.
So several months later, when we came across a study calculating the “externality” costs of coal power, Hig had what seemed like an obvious idea. Externalities are real economic costs that aren’t captured in the consumer price of a good – costs paid by taxpayers and the public in the form of health care costs, pollution cleanup, etc…
We could add those externalities (about 18 cents per kilowatt hour) to the consumer energy prices from the original graph we saw at Usibelli mine, and get better picture of the real costs of coal power.
Enter the Data Geeks
It wasn’t that simple. First, we needed our resident computer geeks to create a fancy interactive graphic that let us look at energy sources, power prices, and externality costs for every state in every year. Next, since every power source has externality costs, we needed to dig into the literature to try and estimate those costs for everything from hydropower to nuclear. Finally, since existing power prices are often grandfathered in from old already-paid-off power plants, we needed to look at the data on how much power would cost from a newly-constructed plant.
We dug through obscure government reports, emailed back and forth with arguments, questions, and statistics, and finally created not just a graph, but an entire report.
Because what we found in poking around in the data was not what we expected to find. We expected that adding externality costs would show that coal power was not as cheap as it appeared. That’s true.
What we also found, was that even without externalities, coal power wasn’t really cheap at all. States that increased their use of coal over the past decade didn’t see their power costs drop. And if you were to build a new power plant today, a coal plant would not be the cheapest choice.
There is no electricity “free lunch”. Not in cost, and not in environmental impact. But the least we can do is make our power choices based on real information, rather than outdated perceptions.