Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Power of One

I'm not sure how, but I ended up on Greenpeace's mailing list - not that that's a bad thing, mind you, it's just that I'm not really an activist in a militant kind of way, more a how-can-I-change-my-life kind of way.

I recently received a note from Greenpeace with a video that featured people from around the country speaking out about coal-fired electricity plants. The video is a PSA about how polluting and dangerous these plants are. I don't disagree, ...

... but having grown up on a coal-mining community, I've seen the devastation and destruction of the coal-mining industry, and not even close up. Of the many possible relatives I have living in that community who could have worked the mines, only one did (and he is now disabled thanks to a mining accident that, thankfully, spared his life), and so I only know the human cost from an observer point of view. The environmental costs, however, are stark, and I'm not even talking about strip mining, which is a whole other category (there's a video out now with Kentucky politician, Rand Paul, who says that no one really cares about a few mountain tops. I hope he's wrong).

In my opinion, the issues of pollution related to burning coal are paltry compared to the destruction of mining it.

Having had the experience of living where coal is produced, the issues, for me, around using coal as a fuel for producing electricity are more than just the pollution associated with burning the stuff, and so when Greenpeace sent me that missive, my first reaction is to wonder if those people talking about their health issues resulting from living near a coal-fired plant have any idea how many people suffered and died to just get that coal out of the ground. Or if they know how many people suffer, every day, from the side effects of the mining industry - poverty, squalor, disease, environmental destruction, to name a few.

Why don't we ever talk about the 10'x10' file room I used to work in at that lawyer's office that was floor to ceiling shelves of files - most of them defending the mining companies against black lung lawsuits brought by former miners? Healthy, young men go in, and twenty years later, broken old men come out. I realized, not long ago, that those broken old men are my age.

When it comes to the coal-mining industry and the use of coal as a fuel, I'm not a fan.

I'm not a fan of nuclear energy either (which constitutes around 25% of the electricity I am using as I type these words), and not because I'm afraid of a Fukushima-esque disaster, but rather because of the need for long-term storage of the radioactive rods. In using and investing in nuclear energy, we've committed our progeny for the next million years to expending large amounts of energy to keep those rods cool.

The problem is that we've developed this lifestyle that requires large inputs of energy, and as the energy depletes, we'll be scrambling to find some alternative, but none of the current clean-energy technologies we have can provide the same amount of energy that is contained in these high-risk, highly polluting fuels.

When I watch activist videos, like the one from Greenpeace, I nod in agreement - Yes, burning coal in a trillion gigawatt power plant is a bad thing. But I want to ask those people what they are doing - what are they, personally, doing - so that they are not dependent on that eletricity that flows out of that coal-fired plant and into their homes.

It's one thing to sign petitions and appear on a PSA announcements telling the heart-breaking story of loss resulting from the pollution from coal-fired plants, but to do so, and then, go home to a microwave dinner eaten in front of the television seems a little ....

If we want to really make changes, those changes have to start at home, and if we want to rail against the coal industry and coal-fired electricity plants, we need to figure out how we, as individuals (first), can live without that electricity.

Twenty-five percent of the eletricity that's delivered to my home is produced in a nuclear power plant. Over the past several years, Deus Ex Machina and I have reduced our electricity usage by over 60% of what we were using. Twenty-five percent of our electricity is still from a nuclear power plant, but for every kilowatt less we use, that's a thousand fewer watts that need to be produced.

Thirty percent of the electricity that comes into our home is produced by hydro power. If we had control over the mix, Deus Ex Machina and I could, now, be powering our entire home with hydro, alone.

If we want to affect change, we have to be willing to make the first changes. So the question is, if you agree that coal-fired electricity is polluting or that nuclear energy is too dangerous, what are you, personally, doing to reduce your need for those energy sources?


  1. 20 years ago we installed a solar hot water system. In 2003 we began to install a series of solar voltaic panels. Our current net use from the power company is 1/3rd the amount we averaged between 1975 - 1988. We have insulated, changed windows, installed a geothermal heat/cool compressor, etc. Current federal tax deduction of 30% on such items expires end of this year. Need to get busy. Russ

  2. Agreed! Time is of the essence ;).

  3. As a Kentuckian I must say Rand Paul is a freaking moron and I cannot believe my fellow people voted for that jackass. Nevermind, I guess I can the guy that was running against him was a bigger jackass.

    Off soapbox now.

    "Fish power" is something new: