The Sunflower State says a historic no to coal

  • Allen Best

 

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., notorious 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. In a front-page story, the Washington Post noted that this was the first time in history that 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 were 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. 

But 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 remarks on the "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, although 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 much 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 urgent need for innovation. 

Allen Best writes in the Denver area.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...