18 February 2009

Kicking Our Coal Habit: America's Clean Energy Hurdle

While the notion that global warming is caused or at least accelerated by human actions was initially greeted by skepticism, the politicization and popularization of the issue by individuals like Al Gore has led to what may be considered a general acceptance that something must be done to slow down the process. As a result, transnational interest groups and domestic lobbyists have been pressuring governments to fund research for and encourage the development of alternative energy sources in order to minimize the impact humans have on the environment. Surely, any doubts that efficiency has reached the forefront of American concerns can be quelled by a sampling of current automobile commercials, as the majority of them highlight any upgrades in the miles-per-gallon statistics of their models. The discussion on renewable energy is not limited to the elimination of gasoline usage in cars, however, and it is important to explore other realms as well. A case in point was portrayed in a recent New York Times article that examines one of the American energy program’s biggest problems: the use of coal as a source of electricity. The article opens with and spends a large amount of time detailing the story of James Rogers, the chief executive of Charlotte, North Carolina based Duke Energy, who repeatedly finds himself the victim of environmental protests. This is not a surprising fact, however, considering the evidence the article provides: when combining several of Duke's solar energy endeavors with some of its wind power projects we see the production of 124 megawatts of electricity, while just one of its new coal plants will produce 800 megawatts. At first glance, this statistic may cause some to believe that coal energy is more efficient and thus should not be phased out of use. True enough, coal energy is traditionally very cheap to produce and the article’s appropriate title asks, “Is America ready to quit coal?” This is an important question to ask and it is my opinion that America is indeed up to the task.

The movement away from coal power will most likely heat up as the Obama administration settles in. For now, though, allow me to consider the difficulties and benefits of migrating to cleaner sources of energy. The New York Times article presents several reasons to support both sides of the debate and serves as a good jumping off point for a more thorough examination of the evidence. On the coal producers’ team are those who point out that some states depend more heavily on this type of power than others, and say that these states will therefore feel more of an economic burden. Their tendency to use coal is due to these plants' cheapness and easy construction, which gives them an obvious advantage over alternative energy plants that must be built in conjunction with one another to produce the same amount of electricity. This inherent difficulty is compounded by the economic difficulties being confronted in America—it is hard for citizens to find themselves in a position to pay more for electricity when they are trying to cut costs and balance their accounts. In fact, the commodity has become so expensive for some consumers that there has been an increase in the sale of coal furnaces (see above left) used to heat homes—an alternative to buying electricity from utility companies. Still others believe that the changeover to clean energy will not be as easy as its proponents say, complaining that the many types available will not be as reliable, which is not a new argument by any stretch of the imagination: one of the classic critiques of the alternative energy industry is that solar panels cannot produce power during bad weather, likewise with wind turbines where it is not windy. Thus, the argument concludes, any attempt to rely solely on methods such as these will result in failure. Additionally, the Times article explains that new infrastructure could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and investment in emerging technologies will require even more funding. In the end, many coal producers find themselves holding out for “clean coal,” and a campaign to pursue this idea has been launched alongside a commercial supporting coal’s image.

These reasons, however, do not convince me that coal is the way of the future. Soon after the release of the clean coal commercial, activist groups joined the fight with their own commercials, and campaigns like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s and This is Reality (see below) debunk the myth that coal can ever be clean. The attack on the reliability of alternative energy is unfounded as well, as strategies pairing energy storage with limited natural gas power conquer this concern. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can continue using fundamentally unclean methods of energy production when there is much opportunity in the field of green technology. A report by the Worldwatch Institute, for example, explains that over 400,000 people are employed by the wind power industry alone, and that governments around the world are using the transition to green energy as a way to create jobs. Surely, Obama’s intention to encourage employment opportunities in order to stem the economic downturn can be supplemented by the beginning of such an effort, and the Times article seems to point to his support of discontinuing coal power production by referencing the possibility of additional fees for these plants later this year. It is true that many alternative energy sources such as geothermal energy will require additional funding well into the future, but donations like one made by Google point to the willingness of American companies to fund this type of research. Additionally, any semblance of clean coal, which so far has been accomplished through a “capture and store” method, could double the price of the electricity produced. If we are attempting to clean up our emissions, why should we waste our time building more coal plants that will never truly produce clean energy? Not only are we denying ourselves plenty of new jobs and more electricity, but with the production of alternative energy plants we would be buying the unquantifiable commodity of a cleaner atmosphere for the future. We must not believe the clean coal commercials funded by executives at the head of companies responsible for one-third of America’s emissions, and instead of installing coal furnaces at home we should continue to think of more creative ways to prepare our homes for energy’s future. It is in America's best interest to prepare for the move away from coal.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I think this post does a great job showing both sides of the "clean" coal debate. However, it would be even stronger if you could tighten and focus the entry.

    You say that Americans are opting to buy coal because it's cheaper than electricity and makes 800 megawatts vs. 124 megawatts. To me, that sounds great. Why is coal so bad? And how bad is it? I think more stats/evidence would help.

    After your intro paragraph, you explore why coal is so popular. But you don't really write about its negative consequences, and how they outweigh any pros... so it sounds like coal is still amazing. Elaborating on how it's not so clean will really show us your stance on the issue.

    Next, you could focus your last paragraph on the benefits of alternative energy: what has obama really done? how many more new jobs? how much pollution/greenhouse gases would you be removing from the atmosphere? Acknowledging the counter-argument (expensiveness/economy), like you have done will balance your entry and make your post even stronger.


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