What a kilowatt-hour costs

At last night’s Town Hall in Bristol, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell expressed support for off-shore wind energy, and I want to respond to his statement that we cannot afford the move to clean energy because the price per kilowatt-hour is higher for clean energy.

I believe in general that there is common ground between factions in our state and in our nation even at this most contentious time, and the common ground is the common good. I am by commitment holding fast to the idea that people all want to be happy, and nobody wants to see anybody else suffer. For the most part, disagreements arise among us because some people see the world as simple and compartmentalized, and others see the world as incredibly complex and interrelated.

With regard to the clean energy question, the objection of cost per kilowatt-hour appears reasonable if we compartmentalize energy production. We look at a power plant, calculate its costs, and arrive at a selling price that we call the cost per kilowatt-hour. We balance this cost against the effect of carbon emissions, which some of us still question. This distraction keeps us from seeing other immediately quantifiable and visible costs of dirty energy production that are distributed over the ecological and economic community.

If we can see past the simple formula we now use for cost per kilowatt-hour, we can see that a more accurate reflection of the cost of coal and oil energy production would have to include these costs as well:

  • land use lost to pollution from run-off and residue
  • health effects of fly ash that dusts heavy metals and radiation across our landscape and in our children’s schools and play areas
  • loss to sea and maritime industries including food production related to oil spills at sea
  • cleanup from oil spills at sea
  • losses to insurers and investors when coal and oil production damages occur
  • loss of income to families of dead or disabled workers
  • medical care and loss of income associated with black lung and similar rock and coal dust effects to miners
  • costs of oil-related conflicts like the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

I am sure that I have left out something in this formula, but you can see the point. To compartmentalize the calculation of costs we pay for carbon-based energy to the amount that a power plant has to charge for a kilowatt-hour is neither honest nor accurate. We are paying more for dirty energy than we think we are, because in the interest of dirty energy, our economy must absorb all of these costs.

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