Southwest Kansas gets little national attention. I recall a Calvin Trillin story about a small town there on the parched plains, isolated and insignificant. Yet the town had become a vital part of the Vietnam War because of its factory, then in frantic production manufacturing concertina barbed wire. Before that, Truman Capote made the small town of Holcomb, Kan., infamous with his book “In Cold Blood,” about a farm family, the Clutters, murdered by two drifters.
Now, Holcomb has become the focal point for our great national and international debate about energy. Two 700-megawatt coal-fired electricity power plants proposed there have been denied a necessary state air permit. The reason: their carbon dioxide emissions. Noted the Washington Post in a front-page story: For the first time a government agency in the United States cited greenhouse gases in rejecting a coal plant.
Unlike so many syrupy corporate pronouncements about “doing the right thing,” the Kansas official who announced the denial was clear about the issue. It would be irresponsible,” said Rod Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, “to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing.”
In the past, our criteria for evaluating power generation have been relatively simple. Electric utilities, true to the wishes of their consumers, wanted reliable electrical service at low cost. Coal delivered on both counts. It’s both cheap and plentiful. More than 50 percent of the nation’s electricity is produced by burning coal.
Our criteria for energy choices are now broadening. “Kansas must take advantage of renewable energy and conservation as we progress through this century,” said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. “These additional coal plants would have moved us in the wrong direction.” Even inside the boardrooms of utilities, there are now admonitions about a future “carbon-constrained world.” The writing is on the wall, and well-run businesses are now jockeying for position in this changing world of energy. President George Bush may never have issued a clarion call for change similar to Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war,” but change is happening despite him.
That’s not to say the future is crystal-clear. There is no one easy alternative to coal. Wind, hydro, biomass and other power sources will continue to expand. Ground-source heat pumps, now novelty items, are likely to soon become mainstream, as they already are in resource-poor Scandinavia. Solar appears poised for a breakthough. And nuclear is increasingly touted as a powerful option, though it remains problematic.
The greatest gains are to be had in wringing greater efficiencies out of existing supplies. We have done this before, quietly but with large and lingering successes. The disruptions in oil supplies during the 1970s sparked innovations in energy use that yielded the burgeoning economy of the last 20 years. We are now going through a similar retooling, only this time with even greater changes likely, and even more at stake.
These are exciting times. Our backs increasingly to the wall, we are discovering that there are new ways to live, and also new ways of looking at the world. Electricity and heat don’t necessarily have to be imported. We are re-thinking our infrastructure.
Considering these changes, I reflect upon the life of my grandfather. He was born in 1890, the year the frontier was declared closed, in a sod house in northeastern Colorado, in country like that of Holcomb, Kan. His family burned cow patties for warmth, rode horses for transportation and, I suppose, burned coal oil for light. The first electricity for streetlights was introduced in 1892, in the mining town of Telluride, Colo., but much of the rural West waited for decades. Not until the 1940s did my grandparents get electricity. Soon, they had radios and, in time, television, with Elvis Presley, the Beatles and all the rest on Ed Sullivan.
Last summer I visited the high prairie where my grandfather was born. A windmill remains, but today, other windmills march over the horizon on the bluffs near the Nebraska border -- dozens of them, each nearly 400 feet high. We are adapting, as people always have. Now it’s time to evolve again. Sometimes it takes a swat from a state regulatory board to wake us up to the urgency of innovation.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in the Denver area of Colorado.