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Looking at Energy Solutions for Alabama

March 3, 2008

Natural gas and propane have also made major jumps in price over the past couple of years. Energy costs continue to go up, and everything from food to transportation rises right along with it.  With the world’s demand for energy growing, it doesn’t look like prices will level off or go back down any time soon.  


In some parts of the state, smog and air quality have become major issues too, because of our energy needs. Birmingham has some of the worst air quality in the Southeast, and much of that is because of our state’s reliance on coal as the primary source of generating electricity.


Another thing to worry about when it comes to energy is global warming. Most scientists say that burning fossil fuels like coal and oil add more carbon dioxide in the air, which traps the sun’s heat like a greenhouse. According to a recent University of South Alabama poll, the vast majority of Alabamians believe that global warming is occurring, and that something should be done about it.


High prices, environmental concerns, and future uncertainty make for a gloomy outlook. It is time to do something about it in Alabama, and a bill recently introduced by William Thigpen (D-Fayette) may hold one key to addressing these problems.


The House Education Ways and Means Committee last week passed Thigpen’s legislation to give tax breaks to companies that use "clean fuel" or other ways to produce electricity with low carbon emissions. The bill provides tax incentives for utilities that build new plants that produce electricity using nuclear power or new "clean coal" technology. The bill is an important part of a package of 13 bills recommended by a legislative committee working to create an energy policy for the state.


Many folks are skeptical about “clean coal,” but there are promising technologies being developed that can transform the use of one of our state’s most abundant resources. If there are ways to effectively reduce emissions of not only carbon dioxide, but also soot and other pollution in the use of coal, our state should lead the way. Coal is as much a part of Alabama as barbeque and football, and if there is a way to use coal as an important energy source while reducing its environmental impact, then we should do everything we can to encourage it.


Nuclear power also has drawbacks, not the least of which is what to do with the radioactive waste of spent fuel rods and the possibility of a nuclear accident like Three Mile Island. Moreover, building and maintaining nuclear plants has not had a history of being very cost effective, and problems like the recent drought made some nuclear plants shut down because of a lack of water. The need for electricity has become so great that some reactors in Alabama that had been in mothballs for years were recently reactivated and are now producing electricity. 


Nuclear plant designs have improved since the country stopped building them in the 1970s. These plants do not add to greenhouse gasses, and studies show that they can now be a cost-effective means of producing energy.


Another part of the bill voted on last week addressed solar power. There is no doubt that solar is the one of the most promising technologies for the future. When we can harness the power of the sun effectively for electricity, the need for other ways of generating power will be reduced, because sunshine is free. One of the reasons solar energy can be so effective is because solar panels can be installed where electricity is needed, in homes or businesses. The bill would provide tax credits for electricity produced by solar panels.


However, the solar tax credits did not pass this time, while the clean coal and nuclear did. The problem is Alabama’s tax structure. The reason an energy bill was brought up in the education budget committee is because all income and sales taxes are earmarked for schools, and any tax credit for energy will be paid for out of the Education Trust Fund.


When you build a new clean coal or nuclear plant, you create thousands of jobs, jobs that generate tax revenue over time. When you provide a tax credit to a home that installed solar panels, there are no jobs created, just a long-term tax credit that reduces education revenue. I am hopeful that we can figure out a way to make solar energy more affordable without hurting school budgets; it certainly is a solution worth finding.


The cost of energy continues to climb, hurting family budgets and causing economic problems. Instead of taking it on the chin, it is time we look at it as an opportunity to change the way we power our state for the better.