Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Punching a Straw Man

You’d better watch out around Mike Miller. When he’s got his dander up, he can throw some pretty mean punches. And he can land them squarely on the jaw of a straw man.

Writing in today’s Missoulian, Miller, a Republican legislator from Helmville, takes on environmentalists who he thinks want to “abandon [coal] entirely” and “rely wholly on alternatives.” While "the notion of everyone using strictly renewable energy sources may sound chintzy and nice,” he says, it just won’t work. We are way too dependent on coal to replace it with solar power. It’s going to take decades before solar power “can even make a dent” in our expanding energy demand. “Swearing off coal would do nothing more than plunge our society into the dark and leave 1.2 billion people around the world” in “energy poverty.” And so forth.

Whatever you may think about this heated rhetoric, here’s the thing: nobody is making the claims that Miller is trying to refute. Nobody is seeking to abandon coal entirely. Nobody is planning to rely wholly on alternatives.* Certainly nobody is claiming that using only renewable energy sources is “chintzy,” whatever that may mean. Nobody is denying that it is going to take time to bring more solar power on line. Like everybody else, environmentalists like to read or watch TV at night and have no plans to plunge society into the dark.

No. What environmentalists do say is that in order to arrest global warming, we need to reduce carbon emissions. And for right now, when it is urgent that we act, the lowest cost ways we have of reducing emissions – energy conservation, efficiency and renewables – all mean that we will burn less coal. The only way that we can reduce emissions and burn more coal is with carbon capture and sequestration. And that, as the coal industry never tires of telling us, is just too damn expensive.  The conclusion is inescapable: if we seriously want to reduce emissions and keep the impact on energy costs as low as possible, we must move away from coal. If you think about it, that’s not as bad as it sounds; it’s what we have been doing successfully in this country for almost a decade now.

Miller is conspicuously and utterly silent on the issue of carbon emissions. No surprise there: There are some hard choices to be made, and politicians (yup, I’m one) try to avoid making hard choices like the plague. But in the end we have to decide: is climate stability more important than “cheap” energy and profitable coal companies, or is it the other way around? Maybe Miller should spend some time thinking about that question instead of taking people to task for saying something they never said.

* Miller attributes the claim that we should “rely wholly on alternatives” to Todd Tanner and Lance Schelvan, writing in an earlier column in the Missoulian. You can check it out for yourself, but as far as I can see, Miller is making stuff up: Tanner and Schelvan are claiming no such thing.


  1. I respectfully disagree with some of this. First, though I can't speak for Mr. Tanner and Mr. Schelvan any better than Mr. Miller, I can say definitively many of us are "seeking to abandon coal entirely," apparently including Washington State Governor Inslee among others (especially in the absence of cost-effective carbon sequestration technology).

    Further, many of us are "planning [for us all to be able] to rely wholly on alternatives."

    I thought Mr. Miller's article indirectly made one very important observation, politicians from Pres. Obama on down to progressive local leaders have failed to either understand or embrace the current technical capabilities & cost effectiveness of "alternatives." While market transformation will take time, the technical capability to cost effectively rely on alternatives, and certainly no coal generation, exists today. Politicians do us all a grave disservice when they fail to recognize & communicate this new and rapidly evolving reality.

    1. Thanks for the comment. As I said in my post, there is no practical way to reduce emissions without burning less coal, and that means that as far as any new energy generation is concerned, we must abandon coal entirely and rely wholly on alternatives (and conservation and efficiency). And we have to expand alternatives faster than total energy demand grows, so that coal is displaced. Whether or not the end point of that process is that we will abandon coal entirely remains to be seen. As you say, it's going to "take time."

      But Miller isn't talking about a process like that. With this talk of "plunging our society into the dark," Miller is implying that environmentalists are eager to shut down coal first and ask questions ("Gosh, where are we going to get our electricity from now?!") later.

      As far as I am concerned, the grave disservice politicians do is when they take their eye off the prize, which is to reduce carbon emissions, and start trying to pick energy sector winners and losers (usually for the wrong reasons).

  2. Barclays Bank’s bond rating service has downgraded the entire U.S. electric utility sector bond market rating against the U.S. Corporate Bond Index due to the challenge from ratepayers’ increasing opportunities to cut grid electricity consumption with solar and battery storage.
    Barclays recommended investors move out of utilities’ bonds wherever solar-plus-storage is becoming cost competitive, including in Hawaii now, California by 2017, New York and Arizona by 2018, and “many other states soon after…” because solar-plus-storage could “reconfigure the organization and regulation of the electric power business” in the next ten years. homes and business are becoming solar independent every 4 seconds. Montana's wind turbines are the most cost efficient in the USA according to years of living dangerously and solor jobs and wind turbine jobs dont get outsourced and are far less dangerous than coal could ever think of... time for Mike Miller to retire from Politics.... He spends to much time allowing coal to erite his speeches and letters of opinion!!!