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Behind the coal controversy

By Paul Wesslund from April 2014 Issue

Behind the coal controversy

Paul Wesslund, Editor, Kentucky Living Magazine

Coal is one of the world's biggest energy stories these days. In Kentucky, it's the biggest energy story.

Some say there's a war on coal, that environmental regulations are making it prohibitively expensive to burn coal to make electricity. That's a big deal in a state where coal makes nearly all our electricity.

The Future of Electricity column this month begins a two-part series about what coal means in Kentucky. It won't answer the question of whether there is a war on coal. Instead, it reviews the background we need to understand why coal matters so much, and why it's so controversial.

This month's column covers why coal has gotten to be such an important energy source, especially in Kentucky.

Coal offers a lot of advantages as a fuel for electricity. It's nearby, with coal mines in and around the state. There's a lot of it. It's reliable—especially compared with wind energy (when it doesn't blow) or solar (when it's night). Even hydroelectricity has proven susceptible to dry weather, and natural gas to price fluctuations.

Coal's relatively low cost has kept Kentucky's electricity rates among the lowest in the nation for decades. And that's led to another advantage—jobs. And it's not just direct coal industry jobs that have made the biggest difference. Attracted in part by those low electric rates, manufacturing has become an enormous share of Kentucky's economy.

Finally, this month's The Future of Electricity column makes the point that over the years coal-burning power plants have regularly reduced emissions in response to ever-stricter pollution control requirements.

The drive to further tighten environmental requirements by limiting greenhouse gas emissions is giving coal power plants their toughest test yet. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions calls for technology that isn't fully developed, and promises to be more expensive than previous emission control techniques. That will be the subject of next month's column.

The controversy over coal is now playing out at the levels of state and national politics and policymaking. Kentucky's electric cooperatives are working to influence that process. They are urging that more consideration be given to the benefits of coal to lower rates for consumers, to the jobs it creates, to its reliability, and to the industry's track record of controlling emissions.