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Monday, July 6, 2009

Just Say No

Three thousand miles away from the place where the Michael Jackson memorial is taking place, the United States Senate is about to take up a matter which is getting no attention compared to the death of the aforementioned pop icon – that of deciding if the United States is ready to get serious about our climate and our energy supply. Yes, unimaginable as that sounds, the future of our ability to live on this planet is taking a back seat to news about the life and death of one guy who could sing and dance quite well.

If you have heard anything about the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, you may know it as the “cap and trade” bill which was narrowly passed a couple of weeks ago by the U.S. House of Representatives. The “cap and trade” description comes from the original intent of the bill, which sought to place a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide being dumped into our air by various sources (mainly electric power generation plants fueled by coal or natural gas), and allow facilities which do a good job of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide they emit to trade, or sell, their good deeds to others who would rather just purchase the clean air credits from others instead of investing money and time into doing good deeds themselves. Amazingly, in a world being rocked by the unfettered trading of mysterious financial instruments, the Obama administration thinks it makes sense to introduce another set of vague and confusing instruments which can be traded and exploited by the unscrupulous corporations that brought us our present economy. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

A far superior approach would be to simply say no to any additional fossil fueled generation. Congress could simply institute the “cap” portion of the bill. They could say that the amount of greenhouse gases being injected in the atmosphere can never go above the amount that will be released in 2009, period. That is what is actually needed, combined with requirements to reduce the emissions over time, because only a bold move like this will shake the electric power industry into adopting technology which will allow us all to totally change the way we purchase power. Further, if our congress cannot bring themselves to make such a timely and wise decision, much of the same good could be done if the public service commissions in each state would simply take the position that no new fossil fuel fired electric generation plants will be licensed. Another great option would be for TVA, which was designed to the be leader of public power thinking in the United States, to include the pledge to build no new fossil fuel generation, nor purchase power from fossil fuel generators, in the Integrated Resource Plan it is developing right now. Sadly, none of these brave ideas seem likely to happen. Kentucky’s Senators McConnell and Bunning will likely lead the fight to defeat this bill in the Senate, even though doing so will only create more problems for our children and grandchildren. State public service commissions seem powerless to suggest anything not favored by the utilities that they supposedly regulate, and the distributors of TVA power (except this one and perhaps a very few others), lead by their trade association TVPPA, are actively trying to defeat the bill and the idea of limiting the growth of fossil fuel generation -- in fact, they are angling to install their own natural gas fired generation!

The opposition to the bill, and these ideas, comes from those who always seem to want to protect the status quo. The folks who mine and sell coal want things to stay just the same as they are, as do most folks who are making plenty of money with the present situation. They are trying to win you over to their way of thinking by scaring you with predictions of tripled or quadrupled electric bills. As usual, the rich are trying to stay rich by scaring the rest of us with misinformation and ghost stories. If you are interested in just how things really are in the areas where coal is mined, take a look at this article published recently by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The opponents of this bill say that we cannot afford the increased cost of electric power. They are fully prepared to continue damaging the environment in pursuit of “cheap” electricity. The truth is that the real cost of electricity, the way we produce it today, is much higher than what you think it is when you get your bill each month because the damage we are doing to our air and water and climate must be added to what your bill depicts.

Examples of this additional cost are everywhere. One that is really easy to see is the upcoming cost we will be paying for TVA’s recent coal ash spill at the Kingston Plant near Knoxville, TN. The burning of coal and the scrubbing of the emissions from coal fired plants produces unbelievable volumes of residues, which are possibly toxic, from the boilers and smokestacks. That residue is presently stored in man-made lakes, largely unlined, where the ash builds up, leaches into the ground water, or possibly, as in Kingston’s case, breaks through the boundary of the storage facilities and inundates the entire region and nearby rivers. This is not some distant problem that locals need not worry about. These facilities are all around us. Last week we even visited a vast coal ash lake at Paradise Fossil Plant just over an hour from here in Muhlenburg County. It looked like a vast inland sea of muck which was separated from the Green River by about a mile. The future cost of continuing to pursue cheap electricity through the burning of coal is being stored up in these vast lakes, and those costs will be released sooner or later. Cheap electric power from coal and natural gas is an illusion, much like cheap food using commodity subsidized corn is also an illusion. Cheap food loaded with corn derived chemicals like high fructose corn syrup is not cheap either because the additional costs of that food will be realized at the physicians offices, the hospitals, and the pharmacies. The cost of fossil fuel derived electric power is just as high. It is time for us to awaken from our slumber and end this damage that we have been vesting upon our children for many decades. It is time we awaken Senator Bunning and McConnell as well. The Senate should pass this bill as did the House of Representatives.

Just what would happen if we capped electric power generated by fossil fuels at 2009 levels? It is very likely that something wonderful would happen. If all generation utilities were told they were running their last fossil fuel plants and that those plants would be forced to close by a date certain there would be a renaissance in thinking about how to generate electricity. That renaissance would most likely result in the adoption of Electric Power Version 2.0 as discussed at this link recently on this very blog. Existing power plant capacity which is wasted each day would suddenly be mined and utilized. Broadband plant and fiber optic cables, necessary to carry the information component of infotricity, would be built to the farthest reaches of existing electric power networks. Millions of new thermostats, water heaters, and appliances capable of utilizing infotricity would be built and installed, employing hundreds of thousands of workers to produce and install the plant and the devices. Millions of existing buildings would be retrofitted with energy saving and infotricity utilizing capacity, employing additional workers still.

At the same time, investment in antiquated fossil fuel generation would cease and that amount of money would instead be spent on the construction of clean, renewable energy facilities. Emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would begin to fall. The destruction of mountains and streams in Kentucky and West Virginia, in the pursuit of cheap coal would cease, and we would be positioning ourselves to give the generations to come the same sort of world that we inherited from our parents and grandparents. Would that be so bad? Now, let’s sit back and watch our Senators decide whether to chase the ghost of a by gone era or to cast their lot for a new world full of promise for us all. Hopefully we will be able to get new about this vote squeezed in some where between Michael's memorial and Dancing With the Stars.


Unknown said...

You need to read the whole bill! The part you mentioned is right on but do you want the government dictating how many killowatts a customer can use each month? Most of us cannot afford the fines if we overuse the kilowatts allowed.
Are you aware this would completely kill the housing industry (what is left of it). Everyone can not afford to completely remodel homes to meet the new standards that will be required if this bill passes.
And last but not least, the bill needs to eliminate the extra pork that is in the fine print!