GOOGLE is upping its search for wind energy, which is mostly a public relations move. Public Service Co. of Oklahoma is moving away from coal, which is partly a public relations move and partly a bow to pressure.
In a state where wind and natural gas are abundant but high-grade coal is not, these developments would seem to make sense not only from a PR standpoint but an environmental and economic one. But they don't necessarily make sense for ratepayers — particularly the ones who buy power in great quantities.
PSO's trumpeted coal-free strategy won't happen any time soon. In fact, the last megawatt generated by coal at a PSO plant in Oklahoma wouldn't happen until 2026.
Google's data center near Pryor is hailed as a groundbreaking facility for its incorporation of wind for “100 percent” of its power. Truth is, the power Google has contracted to buy doesn't actually come 100 percent directly from wind turbines, 100 percent of the time. What Google and other firms and institutions that tout the “100 percent wind” are doing is buying renewable energy credits.
If the wind always blew and if electrical power could be stored in the way coal, oil and gas are, then the 100 percent claim would be accurate. But the wind doesn't always blow and power can't be easily stockpiled. Thus, power generated by other means such as turbines turned by burning coal or gas makes some of the power used at the “100 percent” facilities.
We don't mention this to denigrate windpower. We applaud Google and other companies that make renewable energy a high priority. The Oklahoman supports an extension of the federal production tax credit for windpower, a credit that will expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress acts.
Nevertheless, the wind vs. coal argument should be kept in perspective. Economic concerns are part of the equation. Although PSO will stop using coal in 14 years, it will start charging ratepayers for the costs of moving away from coal as early as 2016. PSO has a right and an obligation to recover the costs of scuttling its coal plants, including installation of pollution-control devices before the last coal plant is closed. Rates could rise by 11 percent starting in 2016, the company says.
Particularly affected are members of Oklahoma Industrial Energy Consumers (OIEC), the mega users of power who have a huge stake in electric power developments of every kind. An OIEC attorney believes the PSO approach will “cripple” manufacturing in the state. That may be hyperbole, but no more so than the “100 percent” claim.
Naturally, environmental activists who create no jobs in the state are thrilled by Google's increasing interest in windpower and PSO's declining interest in coal. The rest of us ought to be skeptical.
First, dependency on one type of fuel, whether used for making power or running cars and trucks, isn't smart policy. Diversity — so celebrated by progressives in other areas of life — is frowned upon when it comes to energy. Second, the war on coal is really the war on fossil fuels. Indeed, hydraulic fracturing opponents who've gained little ground with the claim that fracking pollutes water supplies are now on the warpath against fracking's alleged effects on air quality.
Air quality is what is fueling the rage against the coal machine, but this won't stop with coal. Problem is, the wind sometimes does stop blowing. Incredibly, a Sierra Club spokesman hailed PSO's plans as being good for the pocketbooks of consumers. How is paying 10 percent more for power good for consumers?