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).