Coal can’t be made great again says conservative economist

Walter Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans and a Libertarian. He recently penned an op-ed piece in The New York Times called “Coal can’t be made great again.”

Block sets the context for free-market thinking using more basic purchases – shoes, clothes, restaurant meals. This “leave it to the market forces” is a mantra for free-market Republicans. Yet, as Block notes “One would think that Republicans would apply that same logic to our fuel industry.”

He adds while government has a “legitimate role” in ensuring the safety of nuclear and other plants, “it should not favor, or oppose, nuclear power, gas, oil, coal, wind, water, solar, or any other source of energy over any other.”

He also notes a couple of observations of data points which reveal “the market is moving away from coal.” First, he writes “In 2016, American reliance on coal had dipped to 30% of total electric energiy expenditure, from about 50% in 2000. In contrast, natural gas and even wind, solar and water power are becoming less expensive, and will likely take on a greater share of the overall energy industry.”

Second, he notes “For the first time, as predicted by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analytsis, in April, renewables generated more electricity than power plants fueled by what was once called ‘King Coal.'”

It is through these lenses, he views the efforts to subsidize coal use and place tariffs on imported solar panels as a political attempt to “pick winners.” We should not be “propping up coal” at the expense of alternative energy sources.

In my view, we are passed the tipping point on coal. New plants are too costly to build and the present value cost of acquiring, transporting, burning, storing the ash, health and environmental degradation and litigation of coal exceeds other sources. Further, the solar energy jobs are 4x the number of coal jobs. And, wind energy is soaring in growth, especially through the plains states.

This is not a US-centric result. Renewables are growing rapidly abroad with Germany now getting more energy from renewables than coal. China has been heavily investing in solar panels. But, my favorite global example is southern Australia is now solar powered using American Elon Musk’s battery storage and a French company’s installation of solar panels. Three continents came together to forge a renewable future.

While I agree with Block for the most part, government can play a role to help move forward cleaner energy initiatives, at least temporarily. So, the temporary 30% tax credit for solar power installation makes sense, especially when our Department of Defense continues to cite climate change as a significant threat to national security, even under the current president.

But, as the renewable costs have become more on par from a production standpoint, they can stand on their own without the tax subsidy. Embracing future technologies that will drive the economy is essential. As an example, yesterday, Toyota announced the movement from 2030 forward to 2025 when 1/2 of their vehicle sales will be electric cars, with batteries being made in China. So, if our leaders look backwards too much, we might get passed by.