By Paul Renfrow
For several years, we have expressed concern about how proposed Environmental Protection Agency mandates on coal-fired power plants are needlessly putting Oklahoma’s low electric rates at risk. We believe EPA’s solutions are too costly, and that the same environmental outcomes can be achieved for less money. On the other side of the issue, the Sierra Club is demanding through billboards and airplane banners that we stop using coal altogether — solutions that have no regard for the significant effect they will have on electric bills. Normally, we let such tactics pass, but, on behalf of our 2,400 employees, we must comment.
This debate is not one of compliance. Rest assured OG&E complies with the law now and will continue to do so. It is, however, a debate about how to comply in a way that lessens the cost to OG&E customers. The State of Oklahoma proposed a common sense, cost effective approach to meeting certain environmental requirements, but EPA rejected that approach in favor of its own more costly plan. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt argues that Oklahoma has the right to adopt the most cost-effective approach for its citizens. This is a right that makes sense and that we support.
Interestingly, we use coal today because of federal mandates. In the 1970s, when OG&E needed to build new power plants to meet the state’s energy needs, it was prevented from using natural gas as a fuel. The thought at the time was that natural gas was in short supply, and utilities were forced to build plants that used only coal or nuclear energy. OG&E’s decision to choose coal was a wise one as it has been instrumental in helping keep our rates well below the national average.
A balanced mix of fuels that includes coal, natural gas and wind are essential to maintaining a reliable and reasonably priced source of electricity. The cost of the fuel we use to generate electricity is passed directly to customers without any profit to OG&E. If we are forced to eliminate coal from our fuel mix, that decision could have significant ramifications for customers in the form of higher cost, more unpredictable bills and the potential for reduced reliability.
Regardless of the outcome of the current debate, it is virtually assured that electricity prices will increase. That’s why we’re providing customers with tools like our SmartHours program that offers meaningful savings on summer electric bills, helps reduce the demand for electricity and delays our need to build a costly new power plant. It’s also why we invest in energy efficiency programs that improve our homes and businesses, which also helps to manage cost and reduce demand. And, to help reduce our fossil fuel consumption and offset future environmental costs, we have invested in making OG&E, and Oklahoma, a leading wind power provider.
The characterization of OG&E as uncaring about environmental issues is absolutely unfounded. We have the difficult job of balancing the customer demand for electricity with not only the environment, but also affordability and reliability. We strive each and every day to maintain that balance.
Paul Renfrow is Vice President Public Affairs, Human Resources and Health and Safety for OGE Energy Corp.