Electricity is a miracle. It makes our lives easier, running our lights, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, computers, etc., etc. It entertains us, powering our music, our TVs. It makes our life safer, running the stop lights, and healthier, lighting the operating theaters in our hospitals. We’ve only had it for a little over a century and yet it has transformed our lives.
It is made mainly by boiling water. Water is heated into expanding steam that pushes on the blades of a turbine causing it to spin at high speed. Attached to the end of the turbine shaft is a magnet which is spinning inside a copper coil. Presto! Electric current begins to flow to every house and factory. A miracle!
The most common way to boil water is to burn coal. Coal is cheap (if only the market price is considered) and high in BTUs. But coal is a curse. Why? Many reasons. Mining it is filthy, destructive and dangerous. Miners die, or get horrible lung diseases. Whole mountain tops are blasted off and shoved into valleys causing disruption, polluting streams with heavy metals, violating the land. It is heavy and has to be transported long distances, exacting its own energy cost. But the worst effects come from burning it. The smoke contains mercury, arsenic and other pollutants that cause respiratory disease and cancer. Burning coal puts harmful particulates in the air and yields toxic ash that has to be sequestered. Some experts estimate 10,000 deaths a year come from burning coal.
The true costs include the pollution and sickness but coal companies do not pay these. We citizens do. Our children do. But this isn’t the worst aspect of coal. Global warming is.
Some people choose not to believe in global warming, or that it is a threat only to our grandchildren. One can also choose not to believe in the law of gravity, but such people should avoid jumping out of tall buildings. Global warming is here already and the source is burning coal to make electricity. Here’s a little of the evidence.
The earth, including the oceans, have warmed one degree Celsius since we began burning lots of coal in the 1850s and putting millions of tons of CO2 in the atmosphere, causing an increase in rainfall, storms, and in the violence of storms including more lightning strikes, causing more fires. In one day in June, 2008, 1700 lightning strike fires in California burned a million acres. In the Atlantic, 111 hurricanes formed between 1995 and 2008, a 75 percent increase over the previous 13 years, and they are forming earlier and later. The last 30 years have yielded four times as many weather disasters as the previous 75 years. For the last three years the arctic ice cap has melted at an unprecedented rate and for the first time in human history the Northwest Passage was open to shipping. Not only is the ice melting from the top but from the bottom because the ocean has warmed. Since 1980 the tropics have expanded 2 degrees of latitude south and north, pushing the drought plagued subtropics ahead of them. Half of Australia is in permanent drought and wildfires are consuming wide regions. India, the American Southwest, China, Brazil and Argentina are experiencing serious crop reductions due to unprecedented heat and drought. The Chacatalya glacier in Bolivia, once the world’s highest ski run, is gone. The ocean is becoming more acidic, a result oceanographers ascribe to global warming, making it inhospitable for shell fish. The Pacific oyster beds are seeing 80 percent mortality for oyster larvae. And coral reefs, the nurseries of the oceans, are dying at an unprecedented rate and will likely not survive beyond 2050. To put it ironically, this is just the tip of the iceberg. One can multiply this evidence many fold. For more, read James Hanson’s The Storms of My Grandchildren. Hanson is the leading climatologist in America. Read Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth.
There is another way to boil water, and that is by “burning” uranium. It too has its dangers but many are now saying, reluctantly, that it’s a better risk than coal. Coal, along with its cousins, tar sands, oil shale, and oil, is going to destroy the earth. There are other ways to avail ourselves of enough electricity. These include above all conservation. We waste huge amounts of electricity. Just close your eyes and picture Las Vegas at night. But look at your own home, too. How many lights do you leave on unnecessarily? How many TVs running? And what about the ghost electricity that is keeping all your appliances ready to come on instantly? Think conservation. And then there are renewables—wind, hydro, and solar. We could ramp these up quickly, but only with government based incentives (just as we ramped up nuclear energy, and still subsidize the airline industry and big farmers).
And don’t believe those who say there is such a thing as “clean coal.” It’s a lie. You can remove the CO2 from coal, but it adds 25 percent to the price of electricity, and you have to put it somewhere, preferably deep in the earth, and hope it won’t find its way out because if it does it will suffocate humans living in the region around it. And burning the coal still puts other lung destroying pollutants in the air. The quickest and best thing we can do for our economy, for ourselves and our children, is to stop burning coal. Leave it in the ground. Coal is not a boon; coal is a curse.