Our state’s political leaders have been nearly unanimous in condemning new EPA rules in the recently released “President’s Climate Action Plan,” which will require reduced greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.
The rules have been condemned out of a concern for how they will impact the coal industry. There is no question that coal plays a prominent role in the state’s economy: Thousands of people work in jobs that directly or indirectly relate to coal. But, according to state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman, we have already met half the reductions required by the new rules, so we are left with reducing carbon emissions by about 1 percent each year for the next 15 years. There is a low-cost way to help achieve this goal.
Thankfully, in addition to cheap coal below our feet, we actually have an abundance of an even cheaper power source: wasteful buildings where we live and work. Recent reports have found that it is 50 to 75 percent cheaper for utilities to spend money helping customers be more energy efficient than it is to make more energy, and energy efficiency can economically reduce carbon emissions by the 15 percent needed. Electric utilities and their allies often tout how low the electricity rates are in the state. The state Public Service Commission recently issued a press release touting our electric rates as the sixth lowest in the country. What the Commission did not mention, however, is that we pay higher electric bills than in most other states. In fact, 28 states pay lower monthly electric bills than we do, on average. We are squandering our low rates because of the high cost of our buildings’ wasted energy.
The problem of inefficient homes and commercial buildings gives us an opportunity to help all West Virginia’s families. Improving energy efficiency will help local economies by helping West Virginians lower their energy bills, and these savings will go back into the local economy. It will also create construction jobs to help West Virginians struggling to find work. The work needed to upgrade our buildings making them more efficient — by definition — cannot be shipped overseas.
Some who purport to be working to preserve the coal industry have been mistrustful of anything other than burning more coal to meet additional energy demand, but closer examination shows that energy efficiency is one of the options that the coal industry needs. In order to meet the threat of climate change, and the new EPA rules, our power plants will have to reduce emissions. In the short term, this means to cut electricity demand or switch to natural gas. Perhaps in the future there will be a way to implement carbon sequestration to capture the carbon dioxide, but it is not currently feasible. Until that time, if the coal industry wishes to compete, it should advocate for a more energy efficient economy or risk having power plants switch to natural gas.
Among the many ways to help the coal industry, attempting to do so through policies designed to encourage West Virginians to waste their money by ignoring energy efficiency’s savings and potential doesn’t make sense and won’t work. West Virginia is now at a crossroads for improving our economy by making our homes and businesses more energy efficient. Please join us in working to make it happen.
Emmett Pepper is the executive director of Energy Efficient West Virginia, a coalition of academic, business and community-based groups promoting the application of increased efficiency to help meet our state’s energy needs.