EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's decision to kill the Clean Power Plan reminded me of the story of good King Canute. Growing tired of the blandishments and flattery of his courtiers, Canute ordered his thrown taken to the seashore, where he ordered the tide to stop coming in. This did not work out well. Pruitt will find that the inexorable march of technology is no more cooperative than the tides. If he thinks that pollution was the only reason (or even the major reason) for the shift to natural gas and renewables, he is sadly mistaken. Take, for example, a reason I hardly ever see mentioned: return on capital employed. Basically, this is how much and how long it takes to get a return on an investment. Want to build a coal-fired power plant? Your first dollar does not go into generating machinery.

It goes into an enormous hole in the ground into which you will put the toxic ash from the plant. Then you must build a rail spur to bring coal in and take ash out. All the equipment to handle the coal once you get it to the plant is very heavy and expensive, since, well, you are burning rocks. And it can take years to get the plant built. Want to build a natural gas-fired power plant? Your first dollar still does not go into generating machinery. It goes into a lot of piping to bring the gas in. Waste goes up the stack. Build it in a year. Still not good, but orders of magnitude better than coal, from an investment point of view. Renewables beat carbon-based plants hands down for return on capital employed. Construction is calculated in months. You start generating electricity immediately, if intermittently, and the potential pollution liability is next to zero. Need “real world” evidence? The Chinese are building solar plants as fast as they can. They currently have twice the solar capacity of the United States. They think it's the way to go, and it's not hard to see why.

Daniel deLaureal

retired federal employee