Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor.

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President Trump’s proposal to prop up nuclear and coal energy that are facing market competition from natural gas has merit for a transitional purpose — some would even say hospice-like.

Fundamentally, America is a country that respects the market and resists maintaining industries just because of political patronage.

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The ongoing trend of coal-fired plants being closed and the decision of FirstEnergy Solutions to close three Ohio and Pennsylvania nuclear power plants pose a threat to jobs, local and state tax revenues, and to the existence of both industries.

The hard fact for those industries, which is actually a great boon to consumers of energy — i.e., all of us — is that the discovery of massive natural gas reserves under eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and the drilling technique known as fracking, have resulted in lower energy prices.

Ohio deregulated energy in 1996, meaning it allowed consumers to buy energy from alternative vendors, thus forcing producers to compete. Back then, FirstEnergy and other energy suppliers controlled the sources of energy and were still making money with both coal and nuclear power.

Since the introduction of new and cheaper sources of natural gas, coal, and nuclear power are expensive in comparison. Furthermore, coal hurts the environment and nuclear energy, while having a low impact on the environment, remains scary because of the potential for catastrophic accidental releases of radiation.

President Trump, who made campaign promises to coal-country voters, now plans to bail out struggling nuclear and coal-fired power plants. FirstEnergy appealed to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, calling upon him to exercise emergency authority under a pair of federal laws typically reserved for wars or natural disasters. Administration spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week said that President Trump has directed Mr. Perry to prepare “immediate steps” to keep such plants open as a matter of national security.

The regional electric grid operator, Pennsylvania-based PJM Interconnection, who operates in 13 states, including Ohio, and serves 65 million people, has stated that the loss of the nuclear and coal plants will not threaten the energy supply.

The ironies are rich. This is the same energy department that Republicans, such as Mr. Perry himself, thought should be abolished.

For more irony, think of the Republican outrage that greeted President Obama’s move in 2009 to save the domestic auto industry. The government made its money back and the auto industry quickly recovered.

The taxpayers and consumers of the United States will never be paid back for a bailout of the coal and nuclear power industries, except possibly indirectly. A federal support for economically unfeasible power plants will impact taxpayers all over the country.

There are good arguments that both kinds of power should be maintained for energy diversification and to ease the transition for communities that depend on them.

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