Missouri burns more coal than any other state except Texas, and that should change; the Legislature is considering one tool that will move the state away from the dirtiest of fossil fuels.
Missouri burns nearly 32.8 million tons of coal, whereas Texas burns 63.3 million tons of coal, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But Texas is the second-largest state in the U.S. while Missouri is the 21st-largest state. Texas is nearly four times the size of our state, and Missouri has 19.2 million fewer people than the larger state.
The complex financial plan would let utilities sell bonds backed by ratepayers to cover the debt for coal plants and their remaining value with the idea of making money available for the utilities to build cleaner and cheaper renewable energy projects more quickly. Ratepayers would bear the cost of interest on the bonds, but proponents say the move will save customers money by restructuring existing debt and by reducing overall costs. The plan has been used to good effect in other states.
The plan the Legislature is considering — currently one bill in the House and one in the Senate — has been proposed before, and if it fails this time, it will come up again. The Joplin area has seen Liberty (formerly Empire District Electric Co.) confront the same issue recently. Liberty retired the coal-fired Asbury Power Plant, a 198-megawatt facility near the Kansas border, more than a decade ahead of schedule as part of a plan to add up to 600 megawatts of wind power.
Coal plants are expensive. They are costly to maintain and operate, but their biggest cost is a human one. Our dirtiest fossil fuel still damages our environment and results in premature deaths from the extremely fine particulate matter and other waste produced. Pollution produced by coal power is linked to heart and lung disease, upper respiratory problems, bronchitis, missed work and school days, and, ultimately, more people dying earlier than they should.
What utility companies must do is find a way to move away from coal while dealing with the burden of moving away from the costly and dirty coal-fired generating plants on which they still carry debt. The Public Service Commission regulates investor-owned utilities in Missouri in the public interest because they are in effect limited monopolies.
Shifting away from burning coal will happen. Natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel, and wind and solar are clean and renewable. Utilities will move that way regardless.
The bills under consideration will make that process quicker and less costly and should result in lower bills for ratepayers over time.
Those are worthy goals, and we urge our lawmakers to act on them.