June 27, 2014--In early June, the Environmental Protection Agency released new national carbon emissions standards aimed to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide pollution thirty percent by 2030. The proposed regulations are a landmark, the first ever attempt at limiting these harmful emissions. Although the new standards were designed to allow states flexibility in reaching the target levels, many Kentucky politicians were quick to brand the effort as a new phase in the mythical “War on Coal.”
In a Courier-Journal op-ed, Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) compared the new standards to those implemented in Germany, and went so far to brand them as a “dumb ass policy.” Stumbo listed three actions:“massive shifts to renewable energy” with dramatic coal reductions, a “complicated system of subsidies” and an electricity bill surcharge.underpinning the German plan. Then heposed the question: “Do these goals...sound familiar?”
No, in fact, they do not. What does sound familiar is the same old tune that Stumbo and other politicians keep singing: that renewable energy will always fail and that coal is our only reliable energy source. The Speaker’s logic is flawed when he insists that there is a direct correlation between the renewable energy policies of Germany and the United States—and Kentucky in particular.
Here are the facts:
· The U.S. has only planned to make moderate shifts to renewable energy. We will begin making reductions in the most polluting and expensive coal-fired power plants while maintaining our current nuclear power supply—not eliminating it.
· The U.S. is not setting up a complicated system of subsidies for these regulations
· The U.S. is not implementing a surcharge to pay for this transition
These stand in stark contrast to the supposed actions that Stumbo listed. Further, the Speaker failed to address some fairly major differences between Germany and the Commonwealth. At present, ninety-three percent of Kentucky’s electricity is generated from coal. The Commonwealth currently has no renewable energy policy and will be assuming only a one to three percent reduction of coal by 2016. Unfortunately, we are one of the last states to adopt any kind of reasonable energy efficiency measures. This means that the new emissions standards provide Kentucky with a great opportunity to address our dependence on a finite resource while assisting our utility providers as they transition into a renewable future.
Now, we can indeed learn valuable lessons from the growing pains of Germany. When that nation decided to become a leader in renewable energy, necessary investments had not yet been made in the grid’s infrastructure.
Germany invested heavily in solar capacity, when a more balanced approach incorporating increased wind power might have been a better option. Nuclear plants were shuttered, while new coal plants were constructed instead of modern natural gas facilities.
Finally, Germany set itself a lofty goal of becoming eighty percent renewable by 2050. To assist in achieving this, they instituted a tariff to be paid by residential energy customers while exempting the energy industry. This flawed policy created an unequal burden on ordinary German citizens.
Challenges aside, Germany understands that a fossil fuel-based energy system is simply not sustainable and it continues to work to improve the transmission & storage system so it can reap all of the rewards its renewable investments have created. We in the United States can learn from their growing pains and ensure that we do not make the same mistakes in leaving behind our extractive past and moving into our sustainable future.
In the conclusion of his op-ed, Stumbo offered some valuable advice. “We need new leadership in Washington that does more than just talk about worrying about the affect this [transition] will have,” he writes.
I agree wholeheartedly. Sadly, it seems that President Obama is one of the few currently exhibiting true leadership on this issue. We need politicians, especially from the Commonwealth, who will lead us into a sustainable, economically viable future. We need leaders to invest in sustainable forestry initiatives, local food movements, eco-tourism, energy efficiency integration, alternative energy sources and a balanced energy portfolio. We need representatives who recognize and assess the true costs of fossil fuel production paid by Kentuckians—poor health, high medical bills, and a shortened life span. And most importantly, we need leaders who can protect both Kentucky’s great natural resources and its hard-working miners by assisting them and their families through this transition by providing education and support.
The new emissions standards have provided Kentucky with a tremendous opportunity. We are now poised to take a comprehensive look at our energy policy and create a balanced portfolio that will protect our environment and increase both the fiscal and physical health of our state and its people.
Heather Warman is executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.
Thank you to KET’s Bill Goodman and to the other guests on last night’s Kentucky Tonight, and to all the people who called and wrote in to the show last night, for spirited and important conversation on Kentucky’s energy future!
In the spirit of armchair analysis, here are a few things that I wanted to assert and respond to last night, but either didn’t have my wits about me, or ran out of time:
1) Renewable energy is reliable. States with high percentages of renewable energy are not suffering blackouts because the sun doesn't shine 24 hours a day. The current grid can handle multiple and diverse energy sources. That, coupled with the ability of utilities to predict weather and their customers’ electricity usage, means there’s no reason for Kentucky to be lagging behind in the integration of solar, wind and hydro sources. Less predictable are the behaviors of power plants; even when power plant accidents cause immediate shutdowns (such as at the Spurlock power plant near Maysville in 2004, or Georgia’s Plant Bowen this spring http://www.romenews-tribune.com/view/full_story/22446368/article-Georgia-Power--Worker-errors-led-to-Plant-Bowen-explosion) utilities know how to shift electricity sources to ensure we enjoy a steady supply of electricity.
Kentucky currently generates such a small amount of renewable energy, that the “reliability” issue is a non-issue. Setting clear goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy that can stabilize utility bills, improve health and spur new job growth in coal communities that need it most, and by the time we are generating enough renewable energy to have any impact on the grid, storage technologies and other technology improvements will likely be implemented elsewhere.
2) Kentucky has good potential for hydro power development. I realize now that the term “high lift” describes massive hydro dams like Hoover Dam and I agree with the caller that Kentucky is not suited for that size hydro system. However there are many existing dams that could be utilized to help diversify our electricity sources. One good example of this harnessed potential is the Mother Ann station near Harrodsburg http://www.kyhydropower.com/. And here’s a thoughtful article on a 2012 report looking at Kentucky’s hydro power potential: http://bizlex.com/2012/07/kentucky-can-make-a-meaningful-investment-in-hydropower/. Having dams certified as “low impact” means special attention is given to addressing and avoiding harmful impacts on the ecosystem and communities surrounding dams.
3) Germany is a good, though not perfect, example of renewable energy integration. They have less annual sunlight than Kentucky, but are the world leader in solar energy generation since they set a goal of 80% renewable generation by 2050. Prices of installed solar panels have dropped 50% since 2006. True, Germany is looking increasingly to coal now because of well-warranted concerns about nuclear energy plants following the Fukushima disaster. Just over a year ago, while at the Rio+20 UN Summit, I heard about this conundrum from several German energy experts. Germany’s situation is not a perfect situation. But it can serve as a “shining” example that Kentucky’s leaders should be willing to harvest more energy from the sun.
4) Scientific data speaks for itself. Dr. Michael Hendryx is one of many, many scientists in the U.S. who have analyzed the health hazards of coal pollution. Regardless of his personal opinions, the methodology used in the community health survey results he published this past March in the peer-reviewed Journal of Rural Health is sound. For the research, students from Christian colleges raised their own money to come to Kentucky for their spring break last year, were trained in surveying methods, and went door to door in three Kentucky counties to gather data on public health. Public health organizations and governments rely on questionnaires to collect important data all the time – take the U.S. Census, for example – and the method is sound.
The results were tallied and compared, and the community experiencing mountaintop removal mining (Floyd County) experienced statistically significant increased incidences of some illnesses - particularly respiratory illness - than people in the other counties (Elliott and Rowan). No scientist in such a situation can claim a proven cause-and-effect link; that’s not their job.
Regardless of their personal beliefs, neither the students, nor the scientists were paid to express opinions (in contrast to someone who is an employed spokesperson or lobbyist for a coal industry association, for example). And what’s so bad about Christians (like the group Restoring Eden, who arranged but did not pay students to engage in the project) being concerned about the impacts of pollution on our planet?
The point is, if coal industry leaders are truly concerned about coal workers and community members living near mining sites, they would be equally concerned about the results of the study and interested in preventing any disproportionate impacts on Floyd County residents, because it’s the morally correct thing to do, even if there’s no proof that the illnesses are linked to coal activities.
5) Let’s embrace the gray areas. The future of coal and energy in Kentucky is complicated, more gray than black-and-white. KEF is currently working through a Health Impact Assessment process, with residents and community leaders in and around the Paducah community, to assess and make recommendations on public health protection regarding the retrofit or retirement of the Shawnee power plant. The HIA involves investigation of direct health impacts from pollution, but also the links between employment, economic development and health care access, and many other quality of life issues that could deeply affect the community no matter what the fate of the power plant.
In listening to people there, as well as in many other communities all over the state, we find there’s a yearning for meaningful dialogue on these complexities. There’s also a desire for leaders who will do more than try to hang on to the status quo, but rather take bold steps in the interest of common Kentuckians, not only the interest of big industries. So let’s ask the tough questions, embrace the gray areas and strive for real energy solutions.
There’s much more to be said, of course, and KEF is working to bring together people with many perspectives on our coal and energy future: community members, health professionals, small business leaders, elected officials and others who believe we deserve healthy families, a clean environment, sustainable economic development and safe jobs. All together. Please join us!
Click here to see the episode of Kentucky Tonight with Elizabeth as a guest (air date July 1, 2013).