Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On the Beach

We Vickerys are creatures of habit, especially when it comes to our summer holidays. We go to the same place every year, namely Bethany Beach, Delaware. Not exactly Biarritz, I know, but it's walkable, not too overbuilt, and family friendly.

During this year's trip to Bethany Beach we decided to attend the nearest 350.org Hands Across the Sands event to protest offshore drilling. The organizer was a high-school student, which was encouraging. She told us the start time and gave us clear directions. All we had to do was walk about one quarter of a mile up the beach to the rendezvous point, join hands with other climate-action types, pose for a few photographs for uploading to the Hands Across the Sands website, and head home for lunch with a warm glow of worthiness.

Moving two adults and three kids along a quarter mile of sand is a straightforward task (it's just Bethany Beach, not the Oregon Trail) and we should have accomplished it in under 15 minutes. We set off at 10:45, aiming to be there for the great hand-holding ceremony on the dot of 11 o'clock. But before we'd reached the garden gate Pixie (12) decided she had to change footwear (flip-flop issues), and then -- when we were properly under way -- Arthur (5) noticed several pieces of driftwood in need of protracted inspection, and Peter (43) spotted dolphins out in the bay and how can you not stop to watch the dolphins? Needless to say, ours were not among the Hands that joined across the Sands.

We had the best of intentions but we dawdled, foot-dragged, and failed to take note of time slipping away. Do I need to spell out the moral of the climate-change parable?

We can tackle climate change or we can carry on burning coal. We can't do both. As the latest issue of Union of Concerned Scientists publication Catalyst points out, "coal-fired power plants are the United States' largest source of heat-trapping emissions." And the time to march away from coal is not tomorrow, but yesterday. Vickery-style footdragging is not an option.

Fortunately, the legislature of Minnesota can boast greater alacrity than the Vickerys. Back in 2001, it told the state's power giant, Xcel Energy, to clean up its act. With their eyes on Xcel's coal-burning plants the state's lawmakers established a body to supervise the company's reduction of global-warming gases. Last year the company unveiled one of the results: a power station that used to burn coal but now uses natural gas. You can read more about the coal-to-gas conversion here.

By the way, Xcel also runs a hybrid solar-and-coal power station in Grand Junction, Colorado. Did it come up with the idea all by itself? No, the Colorado legislature passed a law -- predictably christened "the Clean Air - Clean Jobs Act" -- mandating the change. Despite opposition from the mining industry and some labor unions, lawmakers instructed Xcel to retire, repower, or retrofit its coal-burning stations, and switch to natural gas or other low/zero emission energy sources.

To recap, the state legislatures of Minnesota and Colorado have compelled the power companies that do business in their states to quit burning coal. Is the coal industry crying foul and predicting catastrophic consequences, e.g. electricity prices going through the roof, unaffordable heating bills, puppies with frostbite, etc.? Of course. But the power companies are complying and converting their power stations from coal to less harmful fuels.

Our commonwealth is host to a dozen coal-burning plants, including Mount Tom in Holyoke, a facility that belches a million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Here in Massachusetts we burn coal from mountain-top removal sites in West Virginia (mining without miners), and surprisingly perhaps, even more of it from Colombia. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists' 2008 figures, Colombia supplied 83% of the coal burned in Massachusetts. So it's not as though our coal habit is helping keep American coal-miners employed.

As the Xcel story shows, it is perfectly feasible to convert power stations from coal to other energy sources. The technology and know-how are there. The only other essential ingredient is political will.

Colorado and Minnesota are leading the way, forcing the power companies to do what they won't do of their own accord. Is our overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature racing to pass a similar measure here in Massachusetts? Don't bet on it. You'd be safer putting your money on the Vickerys making it to a beach protest on time.

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