Is a lump of coal a good thing?

Gas is less than half what it was a few months ago, and Xcel is actually planning to lower rates after the new year. But savor those cheap energy prices while you can. Like Santa Claus, painful new hikes are coming to town, probably sooner than later. 

One lump of coal in the stocking comes courtesy of this story in the Rocky, in which alternative energy activist Leslie Glustrom contends that Xcel's expansion of the Comanche coal-fired power plant in Pueblo is going to have trouble with its coal supply as time goes on. Xcel fires back, not unreasonably, that the Wyoming coal fields aren't exactly on their last legs. But Glustrom has studied the economics of coal-generated power extensively -- see "Carbon Loading," my 2005 feature on the controversy over the expansion -- and her concerns about the long-term viability of the dinosaur technology have substantial justification. 

If nothing else, the expiration of the Bush presidency is going to bring new pressure on states and the federal government to address global warming issues. The prospect of some kind of carbon tax, coupled with new incentives to develop renewable energy sources, doesn't bode well for plants like Comanche.

Whether those taxes come in the next four years or somewhere further down the line, Xcel is stuck with the new plant, of course. And so are we, as the ratepayers who ultimately absorb the unexpected costs of Xcel's scramble to fill growing power demands. Coal right now is cheap; but like a lot of cheap fixes, it's likely to cost plenty in the long run. -- Alan Prendergast

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