While the cost of wind power has been dropping, a fascinating article in The Washington Post describes how coal mining is becoming more difficult and expensive. The coal industry cites environmental regulations as the main source of upward pressure on costs but WaPo writer Steven Mufson makes a convincing case that factors within the coal fields themselves are the main culprit.
Mufson is careful to note that the trend varies from one coal field to another, but it is occurring in the key coal-producing region of Appalachia among others. Against the backdrop of falling wind prices, the rising cost of coal provides businesses with yet another incentive to explore ways of tapping the wind to power their operations.
Cost of coal goes up
As described by Mufson, the problem is mainly geological. In some regions the "easy" coal is being tapped out, and the remaining reserves are thinner and more difficult to mine efficiently
In the past, new technology has been able to compensate for the increased difficulty. However, Mufson cites research by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which forecasts that new technology will not continue to have the same impact. That's partly because the expense of new equipment is itself a factor.
Mufson's article is rich in detail and well worth reading in full (here's that link again).
Cost of wind goes down
In contrast to coal's troubles, the average cost of wind power has been on a long term, downward spiral. It has dropped 90 percent since 1980 according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Aside from the development of more efficient wind power technologies, the falling trend in wind power prices is due to the existence of the long-running federal Production Tax Credit for wind (PTC).
As for whether or not wind power "deserves" a taxpayer subsidy, the fact is that U.S. taxpayers have subsidized energy production for generations, whether it's fossil fuels or alternative energy, because a steady flow of power has long been recognized as essential to the general welfare.
Beyond the cost of coal mining
The expense of getting coal out of the ground represents just one aspect of the overall cost. The impact of coal mining and coal-fired power plants on local environments and public health has been well documented, and the significant role of coal in climate change is also supported by the available data.
Coal transportation, which Mufson cites as an additional factor in rising costs, also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and negative effects on local communities, including port cities.
An additional complication is the disposal of coal ash, which is typically deposited in open lagoons. The shortcomings of this solution were exposed in a dramatic way in 2009, when a coal ash lagoon broke and flooded a Tennessee community. Air quality problems associated with coal ash disposal are also coming to light.
More companies switch to wind power
Given coal's burdensome issues, wind power has a clear advantage in terms of a company's public image. The wind turbine company Vestas has come up with a study that bears out the promotional advantages, showing that more consumers prefer to buy products from companies that use wind power.
Though on site wind power is beyond the reach of many companies, the growth of large-scale wind farms, advanced energy storage and new transmissions lines are bringing off site wind power within reach of more areas.
Just a couple of examples are the "Grain Belt Express" transmission line planned for bringing power from wind-rich Kansas to Eastern states, and regional plan to build offshore wind turbines in the Great Lakes.
Purchasing offsets is another way that companies can lay claim to using clean energy.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.