Thursday, Greenpeace is throwing Clean Power to the People parties across the country. These parties, whose goal is to get people together on a grass-roots, community level to “end coal’s stranglehold over Washington,” are a precursor to the March 2nd Capitol Climate Action—“the largest mass civil disobedience for climate in U.S. history,” which will be held at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington D.C.
According to The Washington Post, the Capitol Power Plant produces steam and chilled water which are used to heat and cool many of the most prominent government buildings on Capitol Hill, including the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, it also produces sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, fine particulates, and other pollutants, including greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide. Located a few blocks from the Capitol building, the Capitol Power Plant has come to epitomize everything about old government thinking that activists want to change.
The fact that the plant is still in operation, even as today’s government leaders are espousing the benefits of greening our public buildings, is symbolic to many of the hold that big coal has over our decision makers. But I think it is also indicative of the conundrum that many of us are facing as we get down to actually making substantive changes to our business-as-usual routines.
The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have more coal reserves than any other country in the world. About half of all electricity generated in this country comes from coal-fired power plants; and, in some areas, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, over 90 percent of the electricity generated comes from coal. Is it any wonder, then, that efforts to eliminate coal from the Capitol Power Plant have reportedly been “thwarted” by Senators from those states?
It’s easy for me to say we should eliminate coal from our power mix. I live in a state which generates only a meager one percent of its electricity from coal. On the other hand, asking those states which are in the 90th percentile to eliminate coal from their power mix at this point in time is tantamount to asking them to go back to the Stone Age. Sorry Greenpeace. Not to be a party pooper, but that’s not going to happen.
So, what is the answer?
For some, the answer lies in utilizing Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology to produce “clean” coal. With IGCC technology, coal is converted into a gas, from which pollutants are removed before it is burned in the turbines that drive the electric generators. The heat produced by those turbines is then recovered and used to produce steam, which is also used to generate electricity. Proponents claim this technology dramatically reduces emissions while producing more power. Opponents claim the whole idea of clean coal is an oxymoron. For them, the money needed to construct so-called clean coal power plants would be better spent on developing truly renewable technologies such as geothermal, solar or wind power.
But are we really prepared to walk away from one of this country’s biggest sources of energy?
That’s the million dollar question and one which the people of Austin, Texas answered when they were faced with the prospect of having to build a power plant to generate additional electricity. They opted, instead, to implement city-wide energy efficiency and green building programs, which reduced the need for energy to such an extent that the power plant never had to be constructed. Austin Energy, which was one of the EPA’s 2008 Climate Award Winners, is currently on track to offset the need for another 700 megawatt power plant and to provide 30 percent of its power mix with renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and even land fill gas, by 2020. Even so, Austin still gets about a third of its power from coal. And, while the city has shown that it has tremendous resolve to act sustainably, it takes time to change from one power source to another.
In the meantime, the question isn’t so much how we can get our representatives in Washington to make that change. The real question is to what extent each of us is willing to alter our lives in order to make pulverized coal-fired power plants a thing of the past. Are we willing to conserve energy or to be more energy efficient? Are we willing to make the infrastructural changes to our own homes—install energy efficient roofs, windows, heating and air conditioning systems, etc.? Are we willing to pay a little extra to buy green power from our energy providers or perhaps even install onsite power systems ourselves? Because, bottom line, if we don’t buy it, energy providers will stop selling it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But some day.
Don’t get me wrong, I think marching on Washington is a great way to make a statement about the importance of using clean power. But if that’s all we do, then we’ve wasted our time…and energy. At the end of the day, it’s not what Washington decides that will make the difference; it’s the actions we take (or don’t take) in our own homes and businesses that will change our world. So party hard this Thursday. Just make sure to turn the lights off when you leave.