Friday, February 29, 2008

The Easy Math

Coal Plant = Wrong Direction
Right direction =

Starting to piece together an energy policy for South Carolina
Associate Editor

AN ENERGY PLAN for South Carolina is starting to come together — but in a very South Carolina way, in pieces and with halting steps.

Before I talk about what’s been rolled out this month, I guess I still, even in the world of $100/barrel oil, need to make the case that the Palmetto State needs such a plan. Here goes:

On energy, South Carolina is in a painful bind. We are among the poorest of states on citizen income, earning about 80 cents to the nation’s dollar. Add to that our waste of energy: We rank as the fourth least-efficient state in the nation. The combination leaves us spending a lot of our meager income to pay the energy bills and not investing enough in conservation.

Where can we expect energy costs to go in the future? Up. Energy is a global commodity; even if we drill for more oil in the Gulf of Mexico and knock off the tops of more Appalachian mountains to get at the coal underneath, we’ll still be competing with our (weaker) dollars with consumers from here to Beijing to buy these resources. As the Third World continues to grow its middle class, the price of energy seems a lock to keep climbing.

That doesn’t even mention the environmental cost. Given the overwhelming likelihood that all this incinerated carbon is quickly warming the atmosphere, we have to accept that we can’t burn our way out of our energy problems.

What’s the cheapest way to meet energy needs as growth pushes our demand higher? Becoming more efficient, and actually using less. Efficiency improvements to save kilowatts cost about half as much as building a power plant to provide that power, says Ben Moore, project manager at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. That makes sense, given our state’s limited resources and the need to begin really addressing climate change.

Enough (and then some) about the need. What’s being done?

Earlier this month, utility officials and League executive director Dana Beach, who haven’t exactly been singing in harmony over Santee Cooper’s proposed new coal plant, gathered together as a slate of conservation legislation was announced. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell said he hoped to get the bills through the Legislature this year.

Among the measures:

• A sales tax exemption and a $750 rebate would be offered for the purchase of an energy-efficient mobile home. Mobile homes are much less efficient, and their owners tend not to have the money to make improvements.

• A nonprofit organization would gather funds from private grants and donations to help poor residents improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

• State agencies would be required to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 and get 10 percent of their energy from renewable resources.

These all strike me as valuable pieces of a broad energy plan for the state. The nonprofit organization tries to get at one of the tougher issues on energy: how to help low-income people. Mr. Moore points out that because low-income folks spend the highest percentage of their income on energy, “They can’t afford such inefficiency.”

Of course, much of the rest is based on the first tool in every lawmaker’s toolbox: the tax credit or deduction. We use tax breaks for anything that we like and want to encourage, but aren’t really emphatic about enough to actually pay for. Tax credits are the policy version of the free lollipop from the bank.

As my colleague Cindi Ross Scoppe noted recently, South Carolina is ridiculously eager to poke holes in its tax system, so that the official rate and the actual tax paid bear little resemblance to one another. In down years such as this, we feel the pain of this problem.

But what’s missing from this efficiency policy? Well, what about those who are coming to South Carolina and not buying a mobile home? They have been the major drivers of growth — and a main reason cited for Santee Cooper’s need for a new coal plant.

Retrofitting existing homes can and should be encouraged, but there always will be a limited number of folks who take advantage of it.

We can, however, hold new residences to a higher level of efficiency — just as we do for hurricane safety. Would it add to the cost of buying a home? Yes, and that would have to be considered when standards are set. Perhaps bigger, fancier houses would have to be more efficient. But most of the costs would come back to the customers in utility bill savings, especially if energy prices keep their march upward.

Shouldn’t that be one part of an energy policy for South Carolina? If we’re going to address both climate change and the increasing costs of energy we can’t afford, we’ll have to do some things that aren’t easy. Making our new homes more energy-efficient should be one not-so-easy thing.

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