Coal power or brain power?

It was day three without electricity in the Cowee Valley, my Macon County home, but thanks to my Duke Energy-conditioned mind, I continued uselessly flipping light switches. Still, it was beginning to dawn on me what a slave I am to coal and cheap electricity, and I didn't like it.

With candles, lamp oil, a camp stove and plenty of firewood, we were relatively well equipped. But we weren't prepared for the enforced idleness that comes from being stuck at home with no phone or Internet access — and without the many electronic appliances that make our lives so much more, well, livable.

So we huddled close to the wood stove, read for hours, wrote, drank wine and ate the simple meals we could cook up on our little one-burner butane stove. Generator sounds filled the hollow — the first morning noise, drowning out the winter birds that pecked through the snow at our feeder. And when I saw my neighbors later, the first thing they wanted to know was whether we were staying warm enough in our drafty, century-old farmhouse. We told them yes, but the truth is, we weren't. Our Jøtul 500 wood stove is no match for the kind of cold that seeps in through every crack on days when the temperature never gets above freezing. Nonetheless, I was glad I didn't have to worry about gasoline to run a generator — or be driven mad by an endless two-stroke drone.

According to ilovemountains.org, the electricity that powers our home comes from Duke's coal-fired W.S. Lee power plant in Anderson County, S.C. The plant gets its fuel from eight mountaintop-removal mines in central Appalachia; the closest one to my home is in Sarah Ann, W. Va.

In Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, author Jeff Biggers writes:

"This mining technique literally clear cuts the range, blows off the tops of mountains with massive ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil blasts, and topples the rocks and waste into valleys and streams. In the past three decades, an estimated 500 mountains have been destroyed by this mining technique; more than 1,200 miles of streams have been jammed with mining waste and fill, and scores of historic communities have been depopulated, left in ruin and saddled with unsparing poverty. Relying on heavy machinery and explosives, mountaintop removal operations have also stripped the region of needed jobs and any possibility of a diversified economy."

I learned all this long before our power went out, via the Web connection on my coal-powered laptop. Knowing that my electricity comes from such a nasty and mindless source is not something I feel good about, and I wish I could do something about it. But the high cost of alternative energy leaves ordinary working folks few viable options.

Don't the energy companies make enough money to figure this out? And couldn't my taxpayer dollars be used for something more constructive than subsidizing those businesses to maintain the status quo?

A coalition of 34 conservation organizations recently teamed up to pitch Congress and the Obama administration a plan known as the Green Budget. Among other things, it proposes eliminating loopholes that allow big corporations to write off oil and gas production costs; this would save taxpayers an estimated $13.3 billion over nine years. And cutting taxpayer subsidies for expensive new nuclear technologies would save more than $220 million in 2011 alone, according to the Green Budget. Congress could save billions more by ending subsidies to corporate agribusinesses that destroy land and pollute our water.

Instead, the Green Budget proposes investing those savings in cost-effective efforts such as boosting the amount of energy generated by wind and solar technologies. The plan also calls for expanding the scope of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, which helps states and large communities invest in things like retrofitting buildings and facilities to make them more energy-efficient.

This country is full of brilliant people, and we have some of the greatest technology on earth. It doesn't seem like too much to ask for someone — even without firing up a laptop — to figure out how to power us into the future without leaving behind so many scars on our nation's purple mountain majesties. Write your congressional representatives today and urge them to adopt the Green Budget.

To view the full Green Budget report, go to

http://www.saveourenvironment.org/greenbudget/

Brent Martin is The Wilderness Society's Southern Appalachian director, with an office in Franklin. He can be reached at brent_martin@tws.org.
Eliminating loopholes that allow big corporations to write off oil and gas production costs would save taxpayers an estimated $13.3 billion over nine years.

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6 thoughts on “Coal power or brain power?

  1. joeinmadco

    Solar and wind aren’t really the solution because the components for such systems will necessarily be built and maintained through the current infrastructure that is reliant on coal, other fossil fuels, and so many other mined materials that have their own set of major problems. Not that we can’t incorporate new technologies on some level, but we really need to be talking about rethinking how we operate as communities–how we can relocalize economic, political, and social activity and come up with solutions that make sense for the unique places each community inhabits. And, really, it all needs to start with radically simplifying how we live.

    I think we’ve come to a point where technology can no longer be the great savior we once thought it was.

  2. Alan

    Getting too down on coal is pushing the politicians toward nuclear, and even dirty coal is better than nuclear. The only real solution is municipal contraception, and knit caps.

  3. Erika Schneider

    Thanks for helping bring the atrocities of our coal-powered electrical consumption to mind, and especially for the attention to mountain top coal removal so we can shift away from that.

    However, as a self- proclaimed energy educator I have to say that your article raised my ire when you mentioned feeling powerless to do anything about your electrical impact and saying “the high cost of alternative energy leaves ordinary working folks few viable options” after mentioning the cold air “seeping in through every crack.”

    I’m sure you understand the important role of efficiency in helping move us towards a cleaner energy future but that didn’t come through for me. May I suggest you do some weatherization and then follow up with a commentary on why you didn’t do it sooner, knowing what you know.

    We’re all in the same boat.

  4. Erika Schneider

    Thanks for helping bring the atrocities of our coal-powered electrical consumption to mind, and especially for the attention to mountain top coal removal so we can shift away from that.

    However, as a self- proclaimed energy educator I have to say that your article raised my ire when you mentioned feeling powerless to do anything about your electrical impact and saying “the high cost of alternative energy leaves ordinary working folks few viable options” after mentioning the cold air “seeping in through every crack.”

    I’m sure you understand the important role of efficiency in helping move us towards a cleaner energy future but that didn’t come through for me. May I suggest you do some weatherization and then follow up with a commentary on why you didn’t do it sooner, knowing what you know.

    We’re all in the same boat.

  5. NewsView

    I applaud the author for connecting the not-so-green dots between the Internet and coal power. Doing all things digitally is viewed as the best solution, which is one reason everything from movie rental stores to newspaper publishing is now endangered. But are we really improving anything? I would argue not. Modern homes have more outlets, circuit breakers and higher utility costs — all to keep up with the growing number of gadgets we plug in. Meanwhile, we’re talking to each other less and less. Hence, you have people like Oprah conducting family challenges that involve going out our digital delights to rediscover the value of family time minus all the usual distractions (cell phones, computers, etc.).

    Having blogged on this issue myself, I wish the mythologies of conducting our business and social lives over a computer network were not so prevalent. Hidden in the ‘net’s background are server farms strategically located around the globe, which routinely span several football fields, not to mention countless electrically-powered routers, hubs and gateways through which digital data passes sight unseen. Much of this energy is derived from fossil fuels — which in essence implies that much of what we deem Green is in reality wishful thinking.

    There are just two other articles I know of that deal with this issue, but they are eye-opening nonetheless:

    CNN: “All About: ‘Green’ Shopping” [December 24, 2007]

    http://edition.cnn.com/2007/BUSINESS/12/23/eco.shopping/index.html#cnnSTCText

    The Heartland Institute: “The Internet Begins with Coal” [1999]

    http://www.heartland.org/policybot/results/12989/The_Internet_Begins_with_Coal.html

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