The Cost of Renewables Versus the True Cost of Coal

By Perry Bryant

Last year, Charlette Lane, Chairwoman of the state’s Public Service Commission, wrote an op ed in the Charleston GazetteMail claiming that burning coal is cheaper than installing renewables such as wind and solar. That really depends on what costs are included, and Chairwoman Lane failed to include the harm that burning coal causes; costs that renewables don’t incur. Plus, a lot has happened since she wrote her op ed.

Chairwoman Lane’s basic argument is that both solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy while coal is available all the time. The myth of coal’s super reliability was pierced recently when Standard & Poor’s reported that one of three coal-fired units at Harrison Power plant and two of three coal-fired units at John Amos were shut down during part or all of the frigid polar vortex in West Virginia last December – just when we needed their energy the most. 

Chairwoman Lane also dismissed battery storage as too expensive for storing solar and wind energy when the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing. However, battery storage technology is rapidly evolving. Form Energy, for example, recently announced it is opening a battery manufacturing facility in Weirton to make batteries that can store and then discharge power for 100 hours at a cost of one-tenth of the cost of lithium-ion batteries, the type of batteries utilities currently use. If Form Energy can deliver on their claims, it will make renewables very reliable at a very reasonable price.

I do agree with Chairwoman Lane that we should consider the cost of battery storage when comparing the cost of renewables versus the cost of coal. But we should also consider the cost of the harm that occurs from burning coal.

These costs are substantial. The WVU College of Law Center on Energy and Sustainable Development found, for example, that almost 100 deaths can be avoided in West Virginia in 2025 by adopting renewable sources of energy instead of relying on burning coal for our electricity. 

What’s the cost of these avoidable deaths? And what are the additional costs associated with global warming caused primarily by burning coal and other fossil fuels including increased severity of flooding, longer lasting and more extreme heat waves, more intense hurricanes, etc.?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the social cost of carbon–that is what is the total amount of damage from emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere–is $190 per ton of carbon dioxide. To be clear, this is a draft proposal, and I’ll be happy to update the projected costs listed below (either up or down) when EPA finalizes the proposed social cost of carbon.

Using 2021 emission data from the Energy Information Administration (the latest data available), and using EPA’s social cost of carbon, West Virginia’s coal-fired power plants emitted 55.4 million tons of CO2 causing $10.5 billion in annual damage. Here is the breakdown by power plant. 

There are $7.2 billion in yearly damages from the five coal-fired power plants that are directly regulated by the Public Service Commission. When considering all the coal-fired power plants in West Virginia the annual damage rises to $10.5 billion. The social cost of carbon and resulting damage from emissions from solar and wind? Zero.

It’s a lot easier to claim that coal is cheaper than wind, solar and battery storage when you don’t include $10 billion in annual damage that coal-fired power plants cause with their emissions. 

To be fair to Chairwoman Lane, neither the emergence of Form Energy’s breakthrough on new battery development nor EPA’s proposed social cost of carbon was available when she wrote her op ed last year. Based on this new information, one can only hope that Chairwoman Lane reconsiders her unyielding support for coal.

West Virginia is at a crossroads. We can double down on burning coal with all its adverse impacts or we can transition to clean energy. For the next ten years, the federal government will provide tax incentives to partially offset the cost of utility companies installing solar, wind, geothermal and other carbon free sources of energy. This window of opportunity shuts in 2032. After that, West Virginia utility customers will be stuck with the entire bill for developing new sources of electricity. 

In order to avoid huge cost increases to consumers, we need leadership from Chairwoman Lane and West Virginia’s utilities. The choice is theirs. But the cost savings from adopting clean energy or the true cost of burning coal will be ours.