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Sunday, December 28, 2008

What Does Electricity Really Cost?

The cost of electricity in Glasgow is going down some on January 1. This comes as a result of a reduction in the FCA (Fuel Cost Adjustment) which TVA recalculates four times per year. The electricity which powers your home will cost you about 6% less on January 1, to about nine cents per kWH, but let’s talk for just a bit about the real costs associated with the electric power we use in Glasgow. It really costs a lot more than the nine cents per kWH you pay will us for it. Here is what I mean.

We have talked before about the fact that the power we use in Glasgow is mainly generated by the burning of coal at the many coal-fired generation plants operated by Tennessee Valley Authority. In fact, TVA burns over 400 tons of coal per day just to keep our lights on here in Glasgow, and the burning of that coal has costs that are not recognized in that nine cent cost. For one thing, the burning of that coal dumps unbelievable volumes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere from the smokestacks at the coal plants. For example, one of the measurements we are making available to our customers who have one of our new internet-based electric meters is the amount of CO2 that is dumped into the atmosphere each month just to power their home. This month my home’s electric power consumption caused 4,500 pounds of CO2 to be dumped into our atmosphere. There are about 5,500 similar homes in Glasgow alone, and the CO2 going into the atmosphere is only one of the added costs of the power we use. Our waterways suffer as well.

You have likely heard about the massive spill of coal ash slurry from the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant near Knoxville, Tennessee. This link takes you to one of the many newspaper accounts of this event. This link takes you to a first hand account of the disaster from someone who went there. The facts are that on December 22 a dike holding in an impoundment of over one billion gallons of coal ash slurry gave away and emptied its contents into neighborhoods surrounding the Kingston Fossil Plant and, in turn, into the rivers which feed into the Tennessee River. No one yet knows what the long term impacts of this spill might be. We do know that the ash is what is left over after the pulverized coal is burned to make steam to turn the generators that keep our lights on. It is also made up of the objectionable particulate matter that is scrubbed from the smoke which results from this combustion before it exits the smokestack. It is laden with heavy metals like mercury, lead and arsenic. Here you can read an inventory of just what horrible substances are in that ash. That is why we are scrubbing it from the smoke. So, it only follows that if we do not want it in our air, we also do not want it in our water. Yet, there is where it is headed, one billion gallons of it. This cost is not a part of the nine cents you pay for a kWH, but it is still a massive expense, don’t you think? You can bet that the cost of the cleanup will be added to our power bills very soon.

The story of this coal ash spill is far from over, but one thing is certain, the environmental cost of our energy consumption dwarfs the monetary cost. Every single element of the mining, transportation and burning of coal damages the water and air so essential to human life on our planet. There is no such thing as clean coal! We all need to ponder this at every revolution of the electric meter on the side of our house. We all use too much electric power. We use it at the wrong times of the day, and all of the power we use results in long term damage to spaceship earth.

Suddenly nine cents per kWH seems way too cheap. My guess is that, by the time all of the results of this massive spill are known and tallied, coal will no longer be the cheapest way to produce electricity. The folks downstream of Kingston Fossil Plant will be the first to vote for that.

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