Posts Tagged ‘energy’

‘Coal or nuclear?’ is the wrong clean energy mentality

April 13, 2011

Have you ever listened to an argument for a while and thought to yourself, “You know, both sides are missing the point entirely”? That’s how I feel when the coal and nuclear camps fight about which side is a cleaner form of energy.

You’ve got articles like this one that claim that coal is more dangerous than nuclear and articles like this one applauding how safe nuclear power is, and yet no one addresses the bigger problem: high levels of energy consumption are what breed the high demand for different types of power. Instead of focusing most of our efforts on fulfilling a current standard of energy needs, why aren’t we more vocal about and focused on energy efficiency? Instead of building more power plants to meet the status quo, we should be looking for ways to reduce the need for those extra power plants by making our energy go further. Individuals should be reducing extraneous energy consumption too, but I’m focusing on the bigger entities and how they’re spending their time and money and brainpower.

The argument between nuclear and coal seems like a dead end because both are dangerous in different ways. Admittedly, I agree that coal power is more dangerous than nuclear power. Coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead; acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines leave waterways running orange with excess iron, aluminum, and acid; mountaintop removal mining leaves toxins in the air and water, not to mention leaving people’s homes wide open to extreme flooding.

But I don’t want this to be interpreted as a free pass to nuclear — nuclear isn’t crystal clean. The difference is that coal is guaranteed to be constantly polluting the atmosphere, endangering communities nearby and often leaving coal miners to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions, so the flow of danger and the actual negative consequences are constant and expected. Nuclear is regularly lauded as a safe alternative, but the problem is that when nuclear malfunctions, the results can be instantly catastrophic. It’s a constant, predictable stream of pollution with coal versus the possibility for a gargantuan amount of pollution if things go awry with nuclear (e.g. current worries in Japan about high radiation levels in food and radiation seeping into the groundwater under the plant). And of course, there’s the problem of where to store all that radioactive nuclear waste.

Anyway, commentators solely focusing on which is the cleaner energy source are missing the point. It shouldn’t be about which new type of power plant we build, but about how we can harness energy so that we don’t have to build new power plants. Energy efficiency breakthroughs are definitely still happening, but it’s disheartening that they aren’t more salient in the clean energy discussion. So yeah, nuclear power currently might be the lesser of two evils, but that isn’t where we should be setting the bar, and “coal or nuclear?” isn’t the question we should be asking.

Rand Paul is delusional about mountaintop removal mining

June 17, 2010

Rand Paul, a Republican candidate from Kentucky vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, has some really bizarre, misleading, and uninformed views about mountaintop removal mining. Knowing no better way to tackle this video of him discussing his views on coal and mountaintop removal mining, I’ve transcribed most of the video and will analyze his quotes.

Statement #1:

I believe business should be left alone from government. I think the permit process needs to be made easier from the federal level and the state level. I think we shouldn’t have special taxes on their profit. I think we should have lower corporate taxes, those create jobs.

I’d much more rather lower taxes on the coal industry so they can hire 100 new workers than I would say, ‘Let’s tax the coal industry, send it to Washington,’ so we can get 100 new people digging a ditch that may or may not need to be dug.

The permit process was easy for a while — it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the Environmental Protection Agency really started cracking down on mountaintop removal mining permits. If you’re applying for a permit to blow mountaintops to pieces, shouldn’t the process be a tough one? You’re (1) using explosives, (2) possibly using those explosives on mountains near homes and schools, and (3) building a slurry pond of sludge for the leftovers — so yeah, the red tape is warranted.

But then Paul wants to make it about jobs. If we just ease up on the mining industry, they’ll be able to hand out lots of jobs — sounds good in this troublesome economy. The problem is that mining jobs have been dimishing for a long time, as Erik Reece pointed out (in 2006), because mountaintop removal mining is highly mechanized:

Ironically, here in Kentucky where I live, coal-related employment has dropped 60 percent in the last 15 years; it takes very few people to run a strip mine operation, with giant machines doing most of the clear-cutting, excavating, loading, and bulldozing of rubble.

It’s not the “special taxes” that are preventing the coal industry from hiring workers — it’s the fact that they can do coal mining now with fewer workers, which means more profit for them.

Statement #2 (when asked how he feels about mountaintop removal mining):

I think whoever owns the property can do with the property as they wish and if the coal company buys it from a private property owner and they want to do it, fine. The other thing I think is I think coal gets a bad name because I think a lot of the land apparently is actually quite desirable, once it’s been flattened out.

As I came over here from Harland you’ve got quite a few hills, I don’t think anybody’s going to be missing a hill or two here and there, and some people like having the flat land. Some of it apparently has become quite valuable when it’s become flattened.

TreeHugger made an excellent point and has a picture of a pre-mining mountain and post-mining mountain, to show that mountaintop removal mining is more than just chopping a few hills down — it’s completely blasting the tops off mountains, turning streches of mountaintops into bare, flat rubble.

There are pictures of mining sites in all the links I’ve provided so far — would you prefer staring at the bulldozed, gray constuction area-type mountains or the green, flourishing, vibrant mountains of trees? And sure it’s quite desirable when it’s flattened out — to mining companies who want to get the coal inside of the mountains!

Probably not so desirable to the people whose homes get flooded because the trees aren’t there to absorb the water, or the people who have an attachment to the mountains as part of their surroundings. Or the elementary school 400 yards from the mountaintop mining site, downhill from a coal sludge impoundment that holds almost three billion gallons of coal slurry.

It’s not just coal companies politely blowing off their mountain pieces and leaving the surrounding land be — they are hungry for profit, and they are hungry to find lucrative coal seams. Larry Gibson owns and lives on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, and Gibson has been told it’s worth at least $450 million. He felt so unsafe — guarding land that is worth so much to coal companies — that he launched a donation campaign in the spring to raise money for a security system.

Statement #3:

And I think they do a good job at reclaiming the land and you know adding back in top soil, bringing in elk. So I think they’re doing a good job at it, but the bottom line is it’s not just me pandering to coal, it’s me believing in private property.

If they bought the property, they own the property, they can do with that property as long as they don’t pollute someone else’s property, and I don’t think they want to. If they dump something in the river that goes to the next property, your local judges here will stop them, but I don’t think they’re doing that.

I think what they’re doing is what they can do with property they own and it doesn’t appear to me to be something the federal government should be getting involved with.

Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land, but it often doesn’t happen as it should. A recent study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that almost 90 percent of inactive mountaintop removal mining sites “had no form of verifiable post-mining economic reclamation excluding forestry and pasture.” You can avoid completely restoring it if you put it to a better “economic” use, but throwing down some top soil isn’t the end of the road.

And Rand Paul is delusional if he thinks that (1) mountaintop removal mining doesn’t inherently pollute the air and water around the sites and (2) local judges can easily just listen to a resident’s concerns and tell the immensely powerful coal companies to cut it out. First here are some pictures of how mountaintop removal easily causes water pollution:

1. When a coal sludge impoundment gave way in Tennessee, here’s how the water looked:

2. Here’s a typical waterway tainted by either acid mine drainage or coal debris:

It’s actually not uncommon for children who live near abandoned coal mines or other coal mining sites to draw pictures in school and color the water orange or red instead of blue.

And it’s difficult for people to be heard — Appalachia is an area with a lot of poverty, and it’s an area where people’s concerns are vastly muted by the powerful, rich coal companies. If federal judges have trouble getting coal companies to follow the rules, do you think local judges are going to have an easier time?

The truth is that coal companies don’t care at all if they pollute anyone’s water. They don’t care if you’ve got orange water coming from your sink, coal ash in your lungs, or a house threatened by a flood (of water or even coal slurry).

Paul has this romantic notion of coal companies as these sweet entities that mind their own business, stay out of everyone’s way, and immediately learn their lesson when they cross onto someone else’s property. But as we can see from the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, coal companies don’t take safety or anything else seriously, except for getting their coal and getting their money.

Paul wants to believe they are the kids at playtime sitting in the corner, playing with blocks, not bothering anyone. In reality, coal companies are the bullies that take people’s lunch money, break their toys, and never get in trouble for any of it (or talk their way out of it).

Ohio ranks high in mercury pollution from coal plants

March 19, 2010

At a time when most coal-fired power plants are using less mercury — which causes brain and kidney damage — the coal plants that line the Ohio River in southeastern Ohio have gone against the grain by doubling their toxic mercury outputs, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The best part is that AEP reps aren’t really fazed by this, as they basically just shrugged their shoulders and said they buy cheap coal, and sometimes it’s really full of mercury. Oops.

Aside from the gross lack of accountability or real concern about the fact that three of their power plants made a list of the power plants that emitted the most pollution in 2008, I enjoy that their main retort is that new scrubbers are going to fix this problem. I hope these aren’t the same scrubbers that the Gavin plant installed in 2002, because with the scrubbers, it ranked 12th in worst pollution — in fact, Gavin’s pollution actually increased from 2007 to 2008.

I also hope the Gavin scrubbers aren’t the advanced scrubbers that they claimed counted as “advanced technology” when they applied for a $30 million loan from advanced-energy project funds in February 2009. I explained why it was lame back then, and it’s still counter-productive to think scrubbers are the future of advanced energy.

This is why people need to reduce their energy use, why we need to focus on energy efficiency in policy and products, and why we need to start supplementing renewable energy for at least some coal use. If in just one year a power plant can double its mercury emissions, imagine what the air, the water and the fish from rivers and lakes are going to be like in another year, or in five years.

Too bad we never hear of the opposite happening in one year — it would be pretty great if power plants were as good at decreasing their pollution as they are at increasing it. Same with people.

Per ‘Grist:’ Behavioral science important factor in energy debate

March 10, 2010

I love, love, LOVE this article from Grist’s David Roberts. The message? Changing behavior is as important as changing technology.

This article is great because when it comes to energy efficiency, everyone focuses on which type of new technology will be the most efficient, but people rarely mention reducing energy use in the first place.

People can have a great impact by changing their behaviors and not just relying on technology to guide their behavior, plus the report Roberts discusses (originally published in Science ) outlines both how simple it can be to encourage changes in behavior and how profitable it is compared with technological advances:

How much does that same ton of CO2 abatement cost using these behavioral programs? -$165. No, that’s not a typo. It’s a negative sign. As in: $165 worth of profit per ton of carbon pollution reduced. If similar programs were expanded nationwide, Allcott and Mullainathan estimate a net value — savings minus costs — of $2,220,000,000 a year. Of course much research and testing remains to be done before it’s clear whether these programs perform equally well at scale, but as a first approximation, that’s not too shabby.

I highly suggest reading the article — the bar graph (complete with smiley faces) for utility bills, which on average leads to a 2 percent drop in energy use, really shows how simple messages can have a meaningful and positive impact on people, their behavior, and energy use as a whole.

Until humans all become robots, there are some things technology just can’t do, like teach and encourage people to change their behavior. Best not to wait for scientists to invent a robot that follows you around your house, turning off the lights and unplugging unused appliances and gadgets.

Forget arguing power sources: efficiency, reduction always better answers

February 23, 2010

I just unearthed this Time article, which to me illustrates best how many people view and want electricity and energy generation: low cost, infinite, and it helps if it’s not terrible for the environment. The problem is, however, that no energy source can match greater energy efficiency and — even better — reduced demand.

The Time article referenced above discusses why nuclear power is still not a viable saving grace for energy generation — it’s outrageously expensive (costing both government and taxpayers billions of dollars for just one new nuclear power plant) and necessitates finding a place to toss radioactive, toxic waste from the power plants.

Yes, it burns carbon-free, and according to the article, most people don’t even mind living near one — although it never made me feel better that the nuclear plant near my hometown constantly leaked radiation, or that my hometown was just outside the devastation and vaporization zone in the event of a nuclear reactor catastrophe.

In the end, nuclear alone cannot satiate our need for electricity and energy — the answer needs to come first from reduced demand and second from better energy efficiency. Because, really, isn’t the easiest way to solve the energy problem by just using less of it? And figuring out how to get the most bang for our buck?

We keep looking for ways to keep our current lifestyles without sacrificing any of the luxuries that most middle-class and wealthier people currently energy: Endless electricity for cheap prices, endless consumer goods for cheap prices, endless amounts of whatever we want. People want the best of all worlds, because they understand that polluting the air is bad for them and the planet but want a solution that allows them endless electricity, a clear conscience, and money left in their wallets.

Just as permanent weight loss doesn’t come from eating cake everyday, energy efficiency won’t happen by using all the energy in the world you want. It’s as if all these different power sources are like diet pills or plans that people want to embrace because they are easy and don’t require much lifestyle change, when in reality reducing your caloric intake (aka energy use, in power terms) in combination with choosing healthier foods and exercising (aka efficiency) is a lifestyle change that will long-lasting effects.

CCINAC: 1. Mountaintop removal mining

January 20, 2010

Mountaintop removal mining is a dangerous activity that I feel very passionate about ending. I think it’s a mix of going to college near Appalachia, an interest in toxicity and writing my senior research paper about female activists in this arena whose stories really touched me. It’s a horrible way to get coal out of the earth, both for people and the environment.

Mountaintop removal mining is the process of trying to get to coal seams by blowing the tops of mountains with explosives. Typically, one might think of the coal carts and underground mines when imagining coal extraction, but this new process is sweeping through Appalachia and taking countless mountaintops with it.

This is what it looks like when someone puts explosives into a mountaintop and blows it to pieces:

This picture, from, illustrates just the visible damage done to the mountain. Trees and wildlife destroyed, as are the benefits that come from those trees and wildlife — e.g. flood prevention, food, habitat.

Plus, the explosives used catapult toxic debris into nearby streams, ponds and lakes, which contaminates the water that people drink and the water that many animals drink or use as a habitat. It’s not uncommon for water tainted by the debris from blasting to come out of the faucet orange instead of clear. It’s also common for valleys to be filled with rubble from blasting, which leads to rainwater being mixed with the chemicals from these rocks and seeping into streams.

Mountaintop removal mining has also been associated with respiratory problems for people who live near these sites, as they inhale the fumes and the ash created by blasting. Stomach problems are also common — not surprising considering the water near these sites is likely contaminated with toxic chemicals.

People who live near these sites are often very torn, because it’s not as easy as picking up and moving elsewhere. Their households are often their only assets, their households are often in the family or even were built by a family member, and Appalachia is poverty-stricken and people don’t necessarily have the money to pick up and start a new life elsewhere. Even selling their house would be impossible — I mean, would you buy a house where the water was orange and the foundation was cracked and flooding from MTR?

Like many solids extracted from the earth, coal must be washed to separate the coal itself from the rock attached to it. Washing the coal leaves a watery sludge mixture, which is usually just put in some kind of sludge impoundment similar to a lake or pond — and people must cross their fingers and hope the impoundment stays put so they aren’t flooded with slurry.

This picture, from, shows a coal sludge pond in Kentucky:

In December 2008, coal sludge flood actually happened in Tennessee — a retention pond burst and more than 500 gallons of coal slurry flooded a city in Tennessee, leaving the city flooded with a sludge that contained toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic and lead. This kind of disaster is the result of trying to just put toxic waste in a fenced-in area and ignoring the fact that it is toxic and needed proper disposoal (or, if there wasn’t such a thing, it shouldn’t have been created in the first place if it couldn’t be disposed of safely).

The government continues to permit MTR mining even though it poses dangerous and well-known threats to the environment and to the people who live near these MTR sites. Advocates of MTR mining say it creates jobs, when in reality it is a much more mechanized form of mining that uses machines more than manpower, and has cost many Appalachians their jobs in underground mining. MTR mining completely disregards the environment and the health of the people who live near these mountains in order to feed our country’s “need” for coal, and we need to realize the effects that our habits can have on the people who suffer because we demand more and more energy and electricity.

Coal River Mountain Watch’s Coal River Wind Project is a great solution to the problem of MTR mining because it suggests harvesting a renewable energy resource (wind) in the mountaintops instead of blowing them to pieces. It creates jobs, protects health and keeps energy flowing. Visit the Web site to support the cause.

You can visit countless Web sites to support the end of mountaintop removal mining, and is a good place to start. Contact your representatives and let them know how you feel about MTR mining, and visit this EPA site to find out how clean your electricity is. Simply reducing your overall energy use can reduce the demand and the act of MTR mining, as can supporting alternative, cleaner, renewable energy sources through your senators, representatives, activism and donations.