The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
Few would accuse coal of being the fuel of the future. It’s out of step with trends toward alternative energy, relatively dirty to burn, and an old technology. Coal, after all, is what fueled the initial industrial revolution 200 years ago, a time not noted for its efficiency or kindness to workers or the environment. Though coal has few arguments for its future as a source of electricity and heat, the arguments it does have are powerful. Coal is cheap, plentiful, and in the Interior it’s close at hand.
It’s for those reasons that nearly every power plant or generation facility in Interior Alaska runs on coal, and that even utilities and organizations who are eager to add renewable fuel sources to their mix still use coal.
The most recent cost-benefit analysis of coal-fired power in the Interior was completed a few years ago by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as they took a hard look at options for replacing the aging coal-fired boilers at the heart of their combined heat and power plant. Among power producers in the Interior, UAF has shown a strong organizational commitment to sustainability, as evidenced by their Cold Climate Housing Research Center.
UAF has a Sustainable Village project that attempts to make as little impact as possible on outside resources, and the south-facing wall of its Student Recreation Center is covered in solar panels. Yet, they ultimately chose to commit to coal for heat and power needs over the next several decades, for the straightforward reason that no other energy source comes anywhere near coal’s affordability. When errant squirrels in power generation equipment force the university to switch over to petroleum-fired options, as happens occasionally, UAF’s cost of power generation multiplies by a factor of six. The university rightly realized that more environmentally sustainable power sources are nowhere near economically sustainable — and barring unforeseen advances in technology or yet-unfunded megaprojects like a natural gas pipeline or the Susitna-Watana hydroelectric dam, they won’t be for decades to come.
Fortunately for those concerned with what burning all this coal might do to the local air, soil or water, emission control for coal power plants is an area where new technologies can be added to old generation facilities. Power plants like Eielson Air Force Base have seen bag house facilities lead to a marked decrease in airborne pollutants. While coal can’t rightly be considered a clean technology when compared to wind, solar, or even most other petroleum-based fuel sources, it’s certainly gotten cleaner in recent years. There’s reason to believe it can continue to do so.
Ultimately, there’s a distinct positive aspect to being locked into coal for the foreseeable future. The massive coal deposits in Healy are sufficient to match current demand in the Interior for decades — and as Fairbanks residents are well aware after half a century waiting for the arrival of natural gas, the presence of a fuel source that’s stably priced, abundant, and readily available is an asset that can scarcely be overvalued.