We now know that American citizens will take free money to clean up their cars. And while it might not be a tremendously cost-effective way of reducing vehicle emissions, it is helping modernize our vehicle fleet and stimulate our economy.
So, what's next? What are the true clunkers in our societies...classic cars or coal power?
In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner propose (for the first time that I've seen) a cash for clunkers program for companies that replace coal plants with less-polluting or non-polluting power. T. Boone, of course, wants the major replacement for coal to be natural gas...because he owns lots of it. But it could (and should) work just as well for renewable power. So let's talk about this for a second.
To start out, coal power plants are extremely expensive to build. The companies building and financing these plants recognize that they will not pay for themselves for decades, and so they are relying on the fact that, once built, coal plants will produce power for at least fifty years.
That's a long time, and it's bad news for climate change. It means that even if all of the new power generation capacity we add from now on is clean (which, actually, it might be), we'll still have dirty coal plants for at least another fifty years. Unless...
Unless we pay power-generation companies that run dirty plants that might otherwise produce dirty power for another 20 years to close those plants down and replace that power with clean supply.
Unfortunately, we can't just keep printing money. The trillion dollar economic stimulous of the last year has alraedy all but bankrupted our government. If you thought cash for clunkers was expensive, get ready for some serious sticker shock for cash for coal. I can't imagine a program that would mean significant change costing any less than a hundred billion dollars.
A much more effective policy, of course, is just to put a cap on carbon emissions and force companies to make these changes on their own. Of course this would mean that electricity costs would rise while electric companies paid for new technology. But we either spend money we don't have or we spend money we do have. That seems to be the real debate here, and I'm more or less in favor of spending money we do have and letting the market decide the best way to decrease carbon emissions is.
Especially if, instead, we have T. Boone Pickens deciding what the best future technology (NATURAL GAS!!! PLEASE PLLEAASE NATURAL GAS!!) is.