Can Ohio families afford to lose affordable power?

Right now, many Ohio families are struggling financially. And as I look around at these families in need, I wonder how many of them are prepared to pay more for their electricity after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implements a “Clean Power Plan” plan this summer to reduce carbon dioxide “pollution.”

On a quick glance, the EPA plan seems reasonable. What could be better than improved energy efficiency, for example? But the EPA program means to swiftly reduce America’s reliance on coal-fired power generation. And that’s where the trouble starts.

America has long been powered by coal, and in recent decades coal-fired power has become far more high-tech. Coal is now the predominant source of reliable, affordable power generation for many states, and provides 70% of Ohio’s electrical power. As coal-fired power production has become more important to Ohio, the industry has progressed greatly by adding technology that carefully “scrubs” emissions of unwanted byproducts such as sulfur and particulate matter.

Thankfully, this state-of-the-art technology has allowed coal to become cleaner and more efficient. But that isn’t always the case in countries where coal is used extensively. Most of the existing coal-fired power plants in Asia and India lack proper emissions controls. And so, it’s little wonder that more than 25% of California’s smog now comes from China.

While China is clearly the largest country that needs to clean up its act, the EPA is concerned with cutting America’s coal-fired power production on a fast timetable. But coal provides 38% of America’s total electricity generation – more than any other power source— which means that a lot of our power supply is at risk. The problem we face is that existing, alternative supplies simply can’t make up the difference.

Studies of the new EPA plan suggest that, once the new rules are in place, a family of four in Ohio could see their home energy bills increase by hundreds of dollars each year. And what will America get for this trade-off? A theoretical reduction in global temperatures of a tiny fraction of a degree by 2100.

The American people are busy trying to make ends meet. They’re not focused on the climate issue like Washington is. A recent Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans do not see climate change as a serious threat. But they do rank a struggling economy at the top of their list of worries.

I want to know how many families are prepared to pay hundreds of dollars more for their electricity each year— especially for no meaningful environmental improvement. And how often will paying for such an increase mean having to choose between buying groceries or monthly medicine in order to keep their house warm during the winter?

That’s a scenario we’re likely to face, once the EPA plan is fully implemented. In the real world of belt-tightening and limited household budgets, many families can hardly afford higher energy prices. For the sake of those families and individuals who are struggling each day to pay their bills, I hope state governors will tell the EPA to re-think this costly, risky plan.

Dr. Charles Steele Jr. is president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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