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Another Voice: Use of fossil fuels can be reduced gradually

By Phil Wilcox

The climate change issue has reached a new height of attention, given the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement. The issue is so polarizing that there are some extremists who believe fossil fuels are evil incarnate, which they are not.

Economies of the world are inextricably linked at the moment to these fuels, and technologies have made them abundant and extremely cost-effective for powering homes, cars and industries – but they are a finite resource. Everyone can agree that sustainable replacements need to occur at some point.

Accelerating their use is attractive for some in the short term, motivated by business gains in the time frame that is most of our lifetimes, but using up the limited supply we have, absent the development of cost-effective sustainable alternatives, dooms future generations economically – regardless of the science supporting environmental urgencies. The apocalyptic environmental scenarios are what drive some into a frenzy that fossil use should end immediately, which is simply unachievable absent economic collapse. But gradual reduction and simultaneous development of cost-effective alternatives is entirely achievable.

The low cost of natural gas and oil through advanced technologies sets the stage as an ideal time to invest in non-fossil systems and keep overall costs stable. Figuring out how to dedicate more funding from the industries themselves that complement a gradual reduction in fossil use would seem to make sense, but there are other approaches.

On the transportation side, where emissions from fossil fuels were nearly double those of electric generation in New York in the most recent Department of Environmental Conservation statistics, aggressive investments into public transit systems that dramatically reduce carbon emissions, along with broad-based expansion of vehicle charging stations, should occur.

In the utility industry, examples of extreme policies not thoroughly vetted abound, but none more stark than the German example of massive subsidies for renewables with the simultaneous retirement of cost-effective, zero-carbon nuclear generation. Rates there are just south of 40 cents a kilowatt hour, while emissions have risen, as coal-fired generation has increased in nuclear’s absence.

Support for storage systems that are cost-effective and make intermittent renewables reliable should advance quickly, and we have some time to balance the gradual and cost-effective reduction of fossil fuels while their price is so low.

The wholesale price of electricity in New York last year averaged less than a third of what it was in 2009, putting pressure on even existing hydro, nuclear and other zero-carbon sources of generation. New York has enacted policies to prevent the premature retirement of these facilities in a cost-effective manner and other states have or are examining following suit. Fuel diversity and sustainable energy development are critical to long-term price stability.

If we act rationally, we can have a strong economy today and tomorrow, and have a future for the next generation.

Phil Wilcox is business representative for IBEW Local 97.

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