The Southeast Has A Ten Billion Coal Dollar Habit

This blog was written by John D. Wilson, former Deputy Director for Regulatory Policy at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | May 18, 2010 | Coal, Energy Policy

In 2008, Southeastern utilities spent six times more on coal from Colombia (yes, the country in South America) than they did helping their customers cut energy waste at home.

In fact, the Southeast spent over $10 billion in 2008 to import coal from other states and countries to fuel power plants, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). In comparison, Southeastern utilities spent only $178 million during the same period on energy efficiency, a tiny fraction of electric bills and state economic activity.

Photo at right: News-Observer.

Southeastern utilities are writing the checks that effectively send one of every two hundred dollars in regional economic output to other states and countries. If utilities shifted to in-state investments in local renewable energy projects and energy efficiency programs, Southeastern economies could export less cash, and increase employment by hundreds of thousands of people.Burning Coal, Burning Cash ranks states that are net importers of coal, nearly two-thirds of which comes from three states – Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky. In 2008 (the most recent available data), 38 states were net importers, and eleven of those states spent more than $1 billion each for imported coal.

Six of the eleven states that spent over $1 billion for imported coal are in the Southeast, as described in this table.

Coal Imports vs. Energy Efficiency Investments Across the Southeast

State Net Coal Imports ($ Millions) Energy
U.S. States Colombia Total
South Carolina 1,045 57 1,101 2
Tennessee 1,210 1,210 23
Alabama 900 489 1,389 1
Florida 1,257 307 1,564 127
North Carolina 2,314 34 2,348 12
Georgia 2,522 97 2,619 13
Southeast 9,248 984 10,232 176
Sources: Union of Concerned Scientists and Consortium for Energy Efficiency

Over-reliance on imported coal creates more than economic problems for states: Burning coal also causes serious harm to public health, the global climate, and the overall environment. Coal plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming.

What can be done?

Encourage renewable energy with state or federal targets. Twenty-nine states have already adopted renewable electricity standards requiring utilities to gradually increase their use of renewable energy. In the Southeast, however, only North Carolina has established a renewable electricity standard.

Encourage energy efficiency with state or federal standards. Twenty-four states have adopted energy efficiency standards to encourage more efficient generation, transmission, and use of electricity and natural gas.  North Carolina hasn’t adopted a true energy efficiency standard, but utilities can use energy efficiency to partially comply with the state’s requirement for renewable energy.

Discourage coal-fired power plants by placing a national limit on global warming pollution with strong environmental standards. When Congress passes comprehensive climate and energy legislation that reduces carbon pollution at least 20% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, this will send a strong market signal to invest in clean technology which will spur domestic job opportunities in energy efficiency and renewable energy.  Only a cap on carbon pollution will hold polluters accountable for their global warming pollution and end fossil-fuel industry hand outs.

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