When Robert Kennedy Jr. appeared at the University of Kentucky last year, he — as many alternative energy proponents often do — referred to the Midwest as being the Saudi Arabia of wind energy.
Well, I had occasion to drive through “Saudi Arabia” while visiting one of my daughters in Wyoming recently. The trip was rife with irony.
n I saw only 10 wind farms in nearly 3,500 miles of travel from Lexington to Jackson and back. Three were in Kansas; two in Colorado; four in Wyoming; and one tiny one in Nebraska.
n In all but one of the installations, many of the turbine blades weren’t turning. In fact, in the largest one in Kansas, boasting dozens of turbines, only one set of blades was spinning and ever so slowly.
n Even in the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, it isn’t reliable enough to generate baseload capacity. Hottest days of the year, no air conditioning. It doesn’t compute.
n The ultimate irony is that we’re importing wind technology from China to put utility and coal mining employees out of work. Meanwhile, we’re exporting record tonnage of metallurgical coal to China because of their robust steel manufacturing industry, which contributes to the production of wind technology.
My trip started within a week after it was announced that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had donated $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. My question to the mayor and others who stand steadfast behind the campaign is, “What is beyond coal?”
My swing through the Midwest proved that even the Saudi Arabia of wind energy can’t sustain baseload requirements. Storage technology does not allow solar to be used for baseload capacity. The tsunami in Japan has set nuclear back by a generation, if not longer.
Biomass offers a possible solution as a supplement but requires a major influx of investment dollars. I’m familiar with a plant being built near Hazard that will use wood waste as its fuel source. Construction costs will exceed $250 million to generate 58 megawatts of power. Kentucky has more than 15,000 megawatts of installed baseload capacity. That will not be replaced by wood waste and switchgrass.
Natural gas is increasingly an option, but not if the Environmental Protection Agency overreaches its authority as it has done with coal. And it looks like that already has started with public and emotional hearings on the practice of injecting sand and chemicals into Marcellus Shale to release the gas — hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly called.
Right now, the only things beyond coal are rolling blackouts, the disappearance of manufacturing — including tens of thousands of jobs in aluminum, motor vehicles and steel — energy rationing as we did back in the 70s and 80s with gasoline, and the loss of a middle class in Kentucky. You’re already starting to see the strain utility companies are suffering to meet EPA requirements. American Electric Power announced recently that it is taking 6,000 megawatts of coal capacity offline. Duke Energy, Georgia Power and TVA are taking units offline.
LG&E, Kentucky Utilities and every other generator in the state have filed or will file for rate increases to meet environmental demands. And here’s the bottom line — coal is being produced and burned more cleanly and efficiently than at any time in history.
Since 1970, the U.S. population has increased by 49 percent; demand for coal-based electricity has increased 183 percent; emissions of so-called greenhouse gases, including sulfur dioxide and nitrus oxide, and particulate matter have decreased 60 percent. Those are not numbers generated by the industry; they come from the the Environmental Protection Agency.
So rather than talk about what is beyond coal, we should be talking about how to use it in greater levels in the future, and create more jobs beyond the mines and utility companies themselves. Coal represents one of the best possible means of weaning our dependence on imported oil — much of which is refined into transportation fuels. With the unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East, our fuel supply could be put at risk.
Right now, the technology exists to convert coal to liquid and coal to natural gas that can then be used as transportation fuel. But with the regulatory uncertainty in Washington, companies are reluctant to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure with no guarantee there is a market for their product.
I also had occasion recently to talk with a friend in the railroad business. He was telling me shipments were at record levels—going to ports on the East Coast to be exported to China, India, Brazil and other expanding economies. Rail car after rail car lumbering along the countryside with the end game of providing the fuel of choice for emerging countries, not our own.
My comment back to him was he can’t ship it if we can’t mine it, and we can’t mine it if we can’t get permits — another example of overreach by the EPA.
I would strongly suggest that the administrator and her bureaucrats in the ivory towers of the EPA climb down for a few days and see for themselves that the Saudi Arabia of wind energy is as much an oxymoron as clean coal is to its critics. The difference is, clean coal technology already exists as the numbers cited previously indicate. And new advancements will make it even cleaner in the future.
After the field trip to the Midwest, talk with the fuel procurement officers in the armed forces — the single largest consumer of transportation fuels in the country. What are they facing if OPEC turns off the tap as has been done on previous occasions? Jets that can’t fly? Tanks that won’t roll? Rescue helicopters that remain grounded while servicemen and women are at risk?
Go to the ports of Baltimore and Hampton Roads and watch economic success being shipped overseas creating a new middle class even as we eliminate those jobs here.
Then come to Central Appalachia and look into the eyes of miners, steelworkers, auto manufacturers, those in aluminum, farming, light and heavy manufacturing and even the mining engineering students at UK, Virginia Tech and WVU. You’ll see the FACES of Coal and the faces whose very livelihoods are at risk because of flawed science, arbitrary decision-making and an unwillingness to listen to a fair and balanced discussion on energy policy.
Phil Osborne is CEO of Preston Osborne and executive director of Faces of Coal.