Gary Wolfram wrote an opinion piece in this newspaper, arguing in favor of coal (“Coal is still a necessary resource,” Jan. 25). But an unbiased, complete accounting of costs and benefits reveals the truth about coal: it should be rapidly phased out.
Americans have come to expect extremely reliable electricity supply because it is unpleasant to suddenly have the lights turned out, and power outages severely restrict economic productivity. But regional system operators already compensate power plants for reliability, explicitly paying them to be available to generate electricity in emergencies. And coal is not the secret to further reliability improvements: only 0.0007 percent of major U.S. power disruptions in the past five years were due to fuel supply shortages. Most disruptions, including widespread outages in Puerto Rico, which Wolfram cites as evidence of the need for coal, were due to fallen power lines.
Coal is no more helpful in the effort to supply electricity to Americans at lowest cost. The economic cost of power generation is not simply the price of fuel inputs, equipment, and labor; it’s also the damage done to human and environmental health. We must transition to a cleaner energy without devastating the communities that rely on coal for their livelihoods.
Assistant professor of
University of Michigan