Monday, May 14, 2007

End Federal Welfare Payments For Coal Electric Plants

It's bad enough that we let utilities build and operate massive coal-fired electric plants without paying the costs of the enormous quantities of carbon they're spewing into the atmosphere.

Worse yet, the federal government is actually subsidizing coal plants with low interest loans to so-called rural electric cooperatives. (See Washington Post story here.)

We say "so-called" rural co-ops because many of these formerly rural areas are now in booming suburbs and exurbs of major cities.

The U.S. long ago accomplished the mission of the Rural Electrification Act, to provide electricity to hard to reach rural areas where transmission costs made it un-economical to string power lines. Yet Congress continues to appropriate billions of dollars in loan subsidies to rural electric co-ops, which have become politically powerful. (The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has a lavish headquarters here in Arlington.)

Put aside for a moment the corporate welfare aspects of the rural electrification program, however. (For more on that, see this Heritage Foundation report.) At the very least, Congress could prohibit the co-ops from using those loans to build coal-fired plants. Indeed, if politics dictate keeping the program around, the least Congress could do with those massive subsidies is direct the co-ops toward renewable energy sources, which are more suitable to rural areas anyway.

Why not let the Rural Cooperatives, which are owned by their customers, become models of distributed generation of renewable energy? (A handful are moving in that direction, but most are definitively not.) Imagine driving through those farmlands and exurbs and seeing homes and businesses plastered with solar cells and surrounded by wind micro-turbines (reducing the need for all those expensive, unsightly transmission lines.)

If Congress can't do away with this wasteful program, the least it can do is make sure the subsidies are used to move us in the right direction on global warming.

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