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Turning our energy and transportation industries into command economies has been a mistake

MINOT, N.D. — It is my custom to take vacation time the week between the Christmas and New Year holidays, and this year I spent some of that time horrified about what was happening in Buffalo, New York.

Dozens have died

after a winter storm roughly 95 inches of snow on that city and the region. About half died after power outages left homes unheated. Perhaps those who left their homes and died stranded and unreachable in the blizzard conditions fled those outages to find someplace warm.

It was a reminder, stark and grim, that in parts of the world like ours, where winter can be brutal and unforgiving, the power supply isn’t merely a matter of convenience. It can be the difference between life and death.

It is in that context that I ran across this video from the Lignite Energy Council, a group representing North Dakota’s coal interests. It’s short and a bit glossy, but it also gives some insight into a process most of us don’t spend much time thinking of. It shows North Dakota coal workers bustling through our December blizzard that, while not as severe as what hit Buffalo, still featured heavy snows, high winds, and frigid temperatures.

These folks kept working so that our lights came on when we hit the switch, and our furnaces continued to blow warm air through our vents.

This work is no more or less important than what our first responders in the law enforcement and medical fields do.

A lesson recent events has taught us is that politics and ideology have invaded some of the key industries that sustain our lives and livelihoods. In the politically-driven rush to move away from fossil fuels, we have taken reliable, baseload energy off the grid in favor of more volatile replacements. Wind turbines and solar panels are intermittent supplies of energy. They do not have predictable output patterns. Even gas-fueled power plants in some parts of the world have struggled as supplies and prices fluctuate wildly.

The same is true in the auto markets. Manufacturers and investors have begun responding to political cues, pushing electric cars as a one-size-fits-all replacement for vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Yet it’s quickly becoming clear that we aren’t ready for such a transition.

If an electric car works for you, that’s great! But they don’t work for many people for reasons having to do with range and charging time and cost.

Can you imagine trying to escape the blizzard in Buffalo in a Tesla? Would an electric vehicle have been your first choice if you had to travel during the recent arctic blast that hit our region?

By the way, the average electric vehicle is

about 33 percent more expensive

than its gas-powered alternatives, and the price

is rising

amid demand driven by heavy government subsidies and promotion.

Some of the world’s largest auto manufacturers – including some that have invested deeply into designing and manufacturing electric vehicles – have, cautiously,

begun to question the wisdom

of promoting electric vehicles as the only choice for consumers.

That these two issues — grid reliability and electric vehicles — goes without saying. More electric vehicles mean more demand for our aging power grid, which is increasingly unreliable as it is increasingly dependent on intermittent energy sources.

Speaking of affordability, not only are electric vehicle prices spiking,

but so is the price of electricity

. The push to switch to solar, wind, and gas is proving not only less reliable but more expensive, too.

The reasoning behind the politics driving all this is understandable. Carbon emissions from power plants and tailpipes create negative externalities that are not easily accounted for in supply-and-demand markets. We cannot simply ignore these externalities, but unfortunately, addressing them has become an excuse for politicians and activist investors to turn these industries into command economies.

Demand economies work because suppliers follow demand. People want reliable, affordable electricity. They want reliable, affordable transportation. The various companies involved in supplying those things typically respond to those cues.

But the activists and politicians have created new cues built around preferred outcomes – we use wind, not coal, and battery cars, not engines – and it’s creating problems.

Real ones, with real consequences.

Again, we can’t ignore the impact our energy and transportation industries have on our environment, but neither can we allow politicians to command those industries.

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