Ignore political scare tactics; EPA’s Clean Power Plan will be good for Kentucky in the long run

August 9, 2015

Here’s some advice for Kentucky politicians freaking out about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan: Calm down, take a deep breath and face reality.

On second thought, maybe they shouldn’t take that deep breath. Kentucky has some of America’s dirtiest air, and most of that pollution comes from the coal-fired power plants those politicians are trying to protect.

Kentucky leads the nation in toxic air pollution from power plants, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those plants also are the main source of man-made greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change.

The Clean Power Plan, unveiled in final form last week, is the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never attempt to fight climate change. Its goal is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants by 32 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. That is tougher than the 30 percent in an initial proposal, but states would be given more flexibility and two additional years to meet their targets.

Still, the EPA’s goal is modest by international standards. Many European nations have pledged to do more, and scientific studies show carbon emissions must be cut dramatically if the world hopes to curb the disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite the politicians’ howling, Kentucky was on track to meet its initial EPA target of an 18 percent cut in carbon emissions. That’s because utilities already were planning to phase out old coal plants or convert them to natural gas to save money.

The final plan calls for Kentucky to cut emissions by nearly 30 percent — a tougher goal, but still one of the least-stringent among the states. In addition to phasing out coal-fired power plants, Kentucky can meet its target by adding more renewable power sources and improving the energy efficiency of buildings, two areas where it lags behind many other states.

As with previous environmental rules, segments of corporate America and the politicians they sponsor are fighting back.

Kentucky is one of 16 states suing to block the Clean Power Plan, with Attorney General Jack Conway taking a lead. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged states to simply ignore the EPA’s requirement to submit a compliance plan — and risk having one imposed on them if the new rules are upheld in court.

It is no coincidence that Kentucky, West Virginia and other states leading opposition to these rules are places where the coal industry dominates the economy or politics, or where energy-intensive manufacturers have long enjoyed cheap electricity subsidized by damage to the environment and public health.

It will be up to the federal courts to decide whether the EPA’s modest and long-overdue plan to cut carbon emissions, clean the air and water, and improve public health will take effect next year.

But Kentuckians should ignore the scare tactics of politicians, who know they must toe the coal industry’s line if they want to get campaign contributions and votes.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan won’t ruin the economy or “kill jobs.” It will require some difficult transition. But a number of studies predict that, in the long run, the move toward cleaner, renewable power will create a stronger economy with more jobs. At least for those states that embrace inevitable change rather than fight it.

Think about it: Since environmental laws first were enacted 40 years ago, each new regulation, from cutting automobile emissions to curbing acid rain, has been met with corporate and political opposition and dire predictions of economic disaster.

Those predictions have never come true. In fact, just the opposite. That is because environmental regulations have stimulated innovation, creating jobs and growing the economy. Since 1970, air pollution nationwide has been cut by 70 percent and the size of the U.S. economy has tripled.

Regardless of your views on climate change, cleaner air and water mean a better quality of life, a stronger work force and better public health. Those are not small issues in a state like Kentucky, which has some of the nation’s highest cancer and asthma rates.

Kentucky and its leaders have a simple choice. They can cling to the past and fight a losing battle to preserve pollution. Or they can face reality and realize that change is inevitable, pollution is unhealthy, global warming is a threat, renewable energy is the future, and innovation will create a stronger economy.


She wanted classic style, he wanted a net-zero energy house.

July 26, 2015
Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant and contractor, renovated an older home in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a "net zero" energy house that looks like a typical house most people in Lexington want to own. So far, his project has been a success.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant, renovated a circa 1958 house in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a “net zero” energy house that looks like a typical Lexington house. Photos by Tom Eblen

The solar panels that help power Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The solar panels that help power Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.

 

When Jamie and Haley Clark decided to move closer to town and Christ the King School, where their two young daughters are students, they each knew what kind of house they wanted. Trouble was, they didn’t want the same thing.

“She wanted a very Southern Living house,” Jamie Clark said, referring to the lifestyle magazine. “I wanted a net-zero house.”

Kentucky doesn’t have many net-zero houses, which use insulation, solar power and other technology to create as much energy as they use over the course of a year. And few of them look like the traditional homes that most Lexington buyers want.

Jamie Clark of Lexington is an energy-efficiency consultant and contractor.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark

Clark, who works as an energy-efficiency consultant and sells geothermal systems for Climate Control Heating & Air, took that as a challenge.

“Part of my goal was to prove that you could build net zero in Chevy Chase,” he said as he stood outside the house they bought two years ago and drastically renovated. “This would fit in in any neighborhood in Lexington.”

Clark searched Chevy Chase for a house for sale with the right orientation to the sun. He found a one-story ranch on Prather Road, built in 1958 with salvaged brick, and began renovations. Haley Clark sketched what she wanted, and architect Van Meter Pettit turned her ideas into construction drawings.

The Clarks rearranged the existing house and added about 1,000 square feet. The result was 2,978 square feet of living space above ground, plus 1,856 in the finished basement.

They put the master suite on the first floor and added a second story with Cape Cod dormers in the bedrooms of their daughters, Alexandra 8, and Catherine, 5. The girls’ double bathroom was designed with their teenage years in mind.

“I just turned 40 and I never plan to move again,” Clark said. “We were really mindful of growing in this house.”

The first step in creating a net-zero house is insulation; less energy used means less must be generated. The Clarks’ contractors installed Icynene spray-foam insulation and energy-efficient Anderson 400 Series low-E windows.

Clark drilled five, 200-foot wells and put in a geothermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. He installed a Climate Master Trilogy 45 heat pump and a highly insulated iGate water tank.

Clark said he spent about $900 on LED light bulbs, whose light quality is comparable to traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs cost 10 times more than traditional bulbs but use 1⁄10 the electricity and last 10 times longer.

The only incandescent bulbs in the house are on chandeliers that look better with “pretty” bulbs. And there are motion sensors in the girls’ playroom to turn lights on and off automatically.

Jamie Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

“It makes a lot more sense to just conserve than to put more solar panels on the roof,” Clark said. “Back in February, when we hit minus 18, I was using less power than the microwave at Super America to heat my house.”

Clark installed new Energy Star-rated appliances. The only natural gas the house uses is for the kitchen stove, and Clark said his monthly meter fee is much higher than the cost of the gas.

To create electricity, Clark installed 20 solar panels on the back roof. They are on the Kentucky Utilities grid, so the house draws power on cloudy days and adds power on sunny days.

Clark wired the system for 40 panels and plans to add more if he needs them. “I’m trying to talk my wife into a Tesla (electric car), and if we do that then I’ll put 20 more panels up there for charging it,” said Clark, who drives a Toyota Prius.

Like other energy systems in the house, the solar panels aren’t visible. “The only place you can see them is if you stand at the back fence line,” he said.

The Clarks moved in last Thanksgiving, so it will be at least a few more months before they know if their house is net zero. Early results are encouraging. The electric bill in December, when there were only six days with more than six hours of sunshine, was $153. But the bills were $11 in March, $30 in April and $9 in May.

Clark did some of the work himself, and he has good contacts in the industry. For an average consumer working with a contractor, Clark’s energy-efficiency measures would cost about $50,000 more than conventional systems, adding about $200 a month to a 30-year mortgage.

“They will more than pay for themselves,” he said, adding that federal tax credits for solar and geothermal systems would reduce costs further.

Over time, savings will be even greater. Electricity costs in Kentucky typically double every decade, but as utilities move away from high-pollution coal, rates could rise more sharply.

“It’s a dream home, that’s for sure,” Clark said of the project that has made him and his wife happy. “It’s everything we wanted.”

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.

Jamie Clark's wife wanted a "Southern Living" house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Clark’s wife wanted a “Southern Living” house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation.


New MACED president says timing right for new ideas in E. Ky.

March 14, 2015

Peter Hille first came to Eastern Kentucky the day after he graduated from high school. He and other members of his Missouri church youth group piled into vans and drove to Breathitt County to run a summer camp for kids.

“I had this image in my head, probably from watching CBS documentaries on the War on Poverty, that Appalachia was black and white,” he said. “I got down here, and, of course, it was green.

“It was the first week in June,” he said. “You know how the mountains are the first week in June: fireflies all over the hillsides and locusts singing. I thought, I love this place!”

Hille, 59, has nurtured that love for more than four decades, and he is now in a unique position to express it: as the new president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit organization based in Berea that works throughout southern Appalachia.

Hille, a graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, moved to Eastern Kentucky in 1977 and spent more than a dozen years as a woodworker, cabinetmaker and home builder. It gave him an appreciation for the challenges so many Appalachians face.

“They know this is where they want to be,” he said. “But it’s real challenging to figure out how to earn a living.”

150315PeterHilleHille got into community work and spent 22 years at Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, which develops community leaders.

He served nine years on MACED’s board and was chairman until he joined the staff three years ago as executive vice president. He was named president last month, succeeding Justin Maxson, who left after 13 years to become executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hille is currently chair of the Eastern Kentucky Leadership Foundation, a board member of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development and an advisory board member for the Institute for Rural Journalism. In the 1990s, he was facilitator for the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done up to this point has been leading up to this,” said Hille, who lives with his wife, artist Debra Hille, in a passive solar house on a wooded farm near Berea.

Founded in 1976, MACED has become a respected voice in discussions about Appalachia’s economic transition. It promotes enterprise development, renewable energy and sustainable forestry. MACED also has become an influential source of public policy research through its Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“We are at such an exciting time in Eastern Kentucky,” Hille said. “The challenges are as great as they’ve always been, but I think we’ve got some opportunities now that we haven’t always had.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, Hille said, is the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative launched by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in 2013.

“It is the kind of clarion call for unity that we so badly need in the region,” he said.

Another opportunity is the Obama administration’s proposal to release $1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for environmental reclamation and economic development in mining regions.

“We would have to scramble to figure out how to make good use of that money,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of ways to do it.”

While coal will continue to be important to Eastern Kentucky for decades, it will never be what it was, Beshear and Rogers have said. That acknowledgment creates an opening for new and creative thinking, Hille said.

More emphasis should be put on developing renewable energy sources and focusing on energy efficiency. MACED has worked on home energy-saving retrofits for years.

“However much we can scale that up, that is money that is invested in the region, that stays in the region, that is paid back from the savings in the region,” he said.

But the biggest goals should be creating more entrepreneurs and businesses in Eastern Kentucky, and attracting more investment capital. Hille thinks the place to start is by looking at the region’s needs, such as better housing and health care.

“All of those needs represent economic development opportunities,” he said. “What are the opportunities to meet those needs in the region? Or is the first step in health care getting in the car and driving to Lexington?”

Another focus should be on regional assets, such as forested mountains that could be sustainably managed for long-term jobs in timber, forest products, agriculture and tourism. “We haven’t invested in enough possibilities,” he said.

Part of the challenge is changing century-old attitudes about work.

“Instead of trying to find somebody to give you a job, it’s about creating a job for yourself,” he said. “It’s about feeding that entrepreneurial spirit in young people, and then creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is going to support those budding entrepreneurs and encourage them to stay here.”

When a region is economically distressed, it means markets are broken in fundamental ways. Government and non-profit assistance may be needed to fix them. But long-term success will only come with the development of strong markets and capital within Eastern Kentucky.

“With economic development, you’ve always got to ask, ‘Where does the investment come from? What kind of jobs are being created?'” Hille said. “In the long run, if we’re only creating jobs and we’re not building assets, if we’re not creating durable capital in the region, if we’re not building sustainable businesses and industries, then outside investments may or may not serve the needs of our communities.”


Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.


Danville company sees bright future in solar energy

October 10, 2011

DANVILLE — The sun shines bright on our Kentucky homes, and Alternative Energies Kentucky LLC thinks that could become a great business opportunity.

Last year, Alternative Energies became Kentucky’s only manufacturer of photovoltaic panels, which convert sunlight into electricity to power homes and businesses.

The company has rented office and manufacturing space in the old ATR Wire & Cable plant on Danville’s bypass, trained 10 employees and set up a side business in security systems to cushion its startup.

“It has been slow starting,” said Dan Tolson, one of three partners in the company. Solar power is a novelty in Kentucky, he said, “but we think the potential here is huge. It just makes sense.”

Photovoltaic-panel prices worldwide have fallen more than 30 percent in the past year, making solar power an increasingly viable supplement to conventional power supplies. “The more we use this technology, the cheaper it gets,” AEK partner Troy Lay said.

But on the industry side, the competition is fierce. Chinese companies now have two-thirds of the $39 billion global market for solar panels, thanks to huge subsidies from their government.

Also, Lay said, the industry has been hurt by the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a California company that made a different kind of solar panel that had received $528 million in federal loan guarantees. Solyndra’s failure gave politicians beholden to the fossil-fuel industries a convenient target for attacking the whole idea of investing in alternative energy.

“This is well-proven technology we’re using,” said Lay, adding that the kind of panels AEK makes have been used successfully in Europe for more than three decades. “But we’re still fighting a lot of the same questions.”

Lay said he also faces questions about whether Kentucky has enough sunshine for solar power to be viable. He said Kentucky has far more sunshine than Germany, which gets more of its energy from solar than any other country.

“The idea that we don’t have enough sunshine is crazy,” he said. “I don’t know why that keeps coming up.”

AEK buys silicon wafer cells from Taiwan, solders them together and uses an Italian machine to laminate them with tempered glass to form a tough but flexible and airtight panel that is framed in aluminum.

Completed panels are installed on a building’s roof. The power they produce can be stored in batteries, but most systems are tied into the normal utility grid to supplement and offset power that otherwise would be used.

AEK sells a complete 1.1 kilowatt system — which includes five 31/2-by-5-foot panels, installation and all of the equipment to use and monitor the system’s performance — for $6,999. However, federal and state incentives lower the final cost to $4,400 for homeowners or $3,900 for businesses.

Systems can be expanded by adding panels, an option that will become more attractive if panel costs keep falling. Payback times vary widely, depending on how much electricity is used, a utility’s power rates and how fast those rates rise in the future. Lay estimates that most customers pay for their systems in about 10 years.

One of AEK’s first customers last year was The Animal House, a pet-grooming and boarding business in Versailles. Owner Sharon Hughes said she added six panels to the initial installation and figures she is saving about 30 percent on electricity costs.

“I like having the ability to save energy and use the natural energy out there,” she said.

AEK’s solar panels have an expected useful life of about 50 years, Lay said. They come with a 25-year guarantee, but that depends on the company surviving that long.

So far, AEK has received about $6,000 in state economic incentives for employee training, marketing director John Cotten said. However, state tax breaks could eventually total $1.125 million if the company creates the approximately 30 jobs it hopes to over 15 years.

AEK partner Mike Carpenter said the company would like to become big enough to focus on manufacturing and leave installation to other contractors, and that would create more Kentucky jobs.

“We’re not here to take over the coal business, but solar can be a great asset,” Lay said. “It may not be the complete answer, but it’s going to get better and cheaper.”

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Focus on Kentucky coal’s future, not this futile ‘war’

July 10, 2011

Kentuckians love to embrace a lost cause, especially one that deserves to be lost.

The state stayed in the Union during the Civil War, yet many Kentuckians switched sides and mythologized the Confederacy after the war was over. Long after everyone else recognized smoking’s deadly toll, Kentucky leaders remained apologists for tobacco.

Now, federal regulators are finally acting to curb the damage mining and burning coal does to human health and the environment. So where are Kentucky’s leaders? Many have stormed the ramparts, vowing to fight what they call the “war on coal.”

The hollering grew louder Thursday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new standards that will require utilities in 27 Eastern states to reduce power-plant emissions. The EPA says the stricter limits will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and cases of bronchitis and asthma, creating up to $280 billion in annual benefits by 2014 — well beyond the cost of compliance.

These science-based standards have been in the works for years, and big business has been fighting them every step of the way. But pollution is becoming harder to ignore as health-care costs rise and the damage is more obvious and measurable.

Kentucky is the third-largest coal- producing state, and federal regulators have gotten more aggressive about reining in destructive mining practices.

Federal regulators eventually will limit carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, a major contributor to disastrous climate change. Yet, many Kentuckians continue to deny climate science.

Burning coal generates more than 90 percent of electricity in Kentucky and 46 percent nationally. Many business and political leaders complain that the economy can’t bear the cost of cleaning up after coal, which will include higher power rates. As if sickness, death and pollution don’t have huge costs, too.

But here’s the thing: We will be burning coal for decades, because we must. No other energy source can replace coal any time soon. Environmentalists who demonize coal are ignoring reality just as much as the business people and politicians who demonize regulators and fight to protect pollution.

“I wish we could get away from this ‘war on coal’; it doesn’t help anybody,” said John Morgan, a mining engineer and president of Morgan Worldwide Consultants Inc. “We should be having debates about facts and not hyperbole, and quit demonizing everybody.”

Morgan’s Lexington-based firm has found a niche helping the mining industry and regulators figure out more environmentally friendly ways to mine. “If you’re going to mine coal, you need to do it both economically and with less impact, and realize that mining is a temporary land use,” he said. “It’s not just the industry that needs to think more creatively, but the regulators.”

That means designing mines that produce more coal while disturbing less land and fewer streams. And it means more planning for uses of reclaimed mine land.

Morgan points out that tighter regulation hasn’t hurt coal production. And after nearly three decades of decline, the number of Kentucky jobs in underground and surface mining has been rising since 2004. “People say the war on coal is hurting employment, but the numbers tell a different story,” he said.

One reason more jobs are being created is that mine productivity has been falling since a peak in 2000. Easy-to-mine Kentucky coal is becoming more scarce, so the trend of bigger machines and fewer miners is reversing. “As productivity goes down, it’s going to mean more people,” Morgan said.

“Long-term, there’s going to be more underground mining because easily minable surface reserves are almost gone,” he said.

Kentucky mines will get smaller. Permits will need to be more sophisticated. And all of that means there will be more demand for well-trained mining professionals, even as some work is automated. “The biggest long-term challenge is the human resource side,” Morgan said.

The lost cause that so many Kentuckians have embraced is not coal but the idea we can continue mining and burning it in the same old ways. Rather than fighting a doomed “war” to preserve the past, our leaders should focus on the future and the role Kentucky coal must play.


News events show energy status quo must change

March 20, 2011

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation’s electricity? Maybe so. We’re in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan’s disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation’s power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we “can’t afford” to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will “kill jobs.” Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn’t the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan’s crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn’t as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky’s many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.


How will Kentucky cope with climate change?

December 9, 2009

Wow. Talk about climate change.

The change in our environmental climate may be the same gradual warming that most of the world’s scientists have observed since about 1970. But the political and economic climate for dealing with it changed dramatically just this week.

Leaders from 193 nations gathered Monday in Copenhagen to plan climate-change policy amid signs that major polluters such as China, India and the United States may be getting serious about addressing the problem.

Also Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to regulate greenhouse gasses as pollution. That could lead to mandates for less-polluting power plants, factories and cars — and higher prices for energy produced by burning coal and oil and more emphasis on conservation and development of alternative energy.

What will all of this changing climate mean for Kentucky?

About 200 people —students, educators, energy executives, legislators and average citizens — gathered Tuesday at the Marriott Griffin Gate to discuss those issues.

Down the hall, business leaders and legislators were discussing it, too, at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference. During a break, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, joked about the different perceptions and outlooks of those at the two gatherings.

But the underlying truth was clear to everyone: change is here, and Kentucky must deal with it. How well we do that will determine whether Kentuckians prosper or suffer in the future.

The Regional Climate Change Forum’s lead sponsor was the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. The corporation’s president, Kris Kimel, observed that Americans always tend to underestimate the speed and impact of technological change and overestimate the cost of adapting to it.

That’s because the economy is increasingly driven by technology and innovation. Adapting to less-polluting forms of energy will present economic opportunities for Kentucky as well as costs and disruptions, Kimel said.

Kentucky’s coal deposits have given us some of the nation’s cheapest electricity and a lure for energy-intensive industries. But rates are rising because of a variety of economic factors, and regulation to reduce greenhouse gasses and address coal’s other environmental problems will make that power even more costly.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we waste a lot of electricity now because it’s cheap, and higher prices will provide more incentives for conservation and developing alternative energy. That will reduce the need for costly new power plants and help Kentucky transition away from coal as reserves are depleted.

Most electric utilities are moving in that direction, said John Malloy of EON-US, which owns Kentucky Utilities and Louisville Gas & Electric.

As utilities study better technology for generating and delivering power — everything from solar, wind and landfill methane to better power grids — they also are looking at the potential of conservation.

“It’s no longer simply a supply-side game,” he said.

Kentucky’s political leaders have often been allies in the coal industry’s efforts to resist regulation. But they also have done some progressive things recently. Those include new, stricter environmental standards for state buildings and Finance Secretary Jonathan Miller’s Clean Energy Corps, an effort to weatherize homes for low- and middle-income families.

Forum participants stressed that adapting to climate change will involve a lot more than energy and and its related economic issues.

Stuart Foster of the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University said one of his biggest concerns is that new climate patterns may make Kentucky’s droughts longer and more severe.

“Extended drought over multiple years could be devastating for Kentucky,” Foster said.

We also must anticipate and cope with climate change’s impact on agriculture and sensitive natural ecosystems, where a little change can have big and unpredictable consequences.

Kentucky’s ability to adapt will require education, research and the ability to act quickly to mitigate damage and take advantage of economic opportunities.

“We can’t predict all of these changes,” Kimel said. “We have to get out ahead of them with our imagination.”


Commerce Lexington should promote the future, not coal’s past

December 5, 2009

As world leaders gather Monday in Copenhagen to rewrite energy policies to reduce future carbon emissions, Lexington business leaders have rewritten their energy policy to try to help the coal industry cling to the past.

Commerce Lexington announced a policy revision last week. that dropped a reference to “encourage the production and use of reliable and less carbon-intensive energy fuels, like natural gas” and replaced it with “maintain the production of affordable, reliable energy.” Several direct coal industry endorsements were added, including:

” … the most immediate threat to Kentucky’s business climate is the pending energy legislation and regulatory obstacles that place an undue burden on states like Kentucky that rely heavily on coal-fired generation plants for electricity. … Commerce Lexington opposes any legislation and regulations that would have a significant negative impact” on coal-industry jobs.

Robert Quick, Commerce Lexington’s president, said the business advocacy group has always supported coal and wanted to make that support more explicit. “It’s hypocritical if we advocate for low-cost energy without supporting coal,” he said.

Quick said the rewrite was prompted by a two-day bus tour of Eastern Kentucky by nearly 70 Commerce Lexington members that “opened our eyes.” The trip included tours of showcase coal projects and presentations by industry representatives and coal-friendly public officials, but nothing from coal’s critics in the region.

Quick said the bus tour on Oct. 12-13 wasn’t a coal-industry junket. He emphasized that Commerce Lexington doesn’t deny climate change or the need to transition away from coal as Kentucky’s reserves are depleted.

“We know that there’s climate change,” Quick said. “We have to be looking for alternative fuels. It’s going to be a transition. Change is coming.”

Quick said the policy rewrite was simply intended to acknowledge coal’s role in Kentucky’s economy and to “make a connection” with mountain leaders.

“Nobody from the coal industry or our membership got to us,” he said. “Nobody got us in a head lock.”

Some people may see it that way.

Others will see it this way: The rewrite echoes a publicity campaign being waged for the coal industry by Phil Osborne, a public relations executive who serves on Commerce Lexington’s Executive Committee and played a big role in the bus tour.

Others also will see the policy rewrite as an attempt to pacify powerful pro-coal people in Eastern Kentucky, some of whom have been calling for a boycott of Lexington businesses because all of our public officials and media don’t toe the coal industry line the way theirs do.

Yes, the coal industry produces some good-paying jobs in Eastern Kentucky, although many fewer than in the past. That’s because of controversial, mechanized surface-mining methods that are radically altering the mountain landscape.

While it’s good that Commerce Lexington members spent time in Eastern Kentucky, they could have gotten a more well-rounded education on coal by traveling to the University of Kentucky campus Nov. 5 for the College of Engineering’s excellent coal conference.

In addition to hearing the coal industry’s perspectives, Commerce Lexington members would have heard from Eastern Kentuckians who have had their property, communities, water supplies and health damaged by coal mining. And they would have gotten a more complete — and less rosy — picture of coal’s impact on Kentucky’s economy.

King Coal’s campaign against change reminds me of Big Tobacco’s lobbying efforts three decades ago. Long after others were acknowledging the inevitable, Kentucky leaders kept trying to deny tobacco’s harm.

Coal will be much harder to quit than tobacco. Coal produces half the nation’s electricity and 92 percent of Kentucky’s. Nobody denies the valuable contributions that hard-working coal miners have made. Without coal we wouldn’t have our modern lifestyle.

Coal will continue to be essential to our nation for many years. But the longer we keep mining and burning coal the way we do now, the more dangerous it will be for our economy and our planet.

Coal companies have a long history of fighting change, from mine safety reforms to surface owners’ rights to surface-mine reclamation. They always claim that any new regulation will kill the coal industry. Regulation has never killed the coal industry; but the industry has never changed without regulation.

One startling indicator of change came last week in a commentary written by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who has been one of coal’s strongest allies in Congress for more than five decades.

Byrd wrote bluntly that if the coal industry wants to be a player in helping set future energy policy it must stop scapegoating, stoking fear among its workers, resisting environmental regulation and denying climate change.

Commerce Lexington’s rewritten energy policy may appease some powerful people in Eastern Kentucky, but Lexington business leaders should think about what kind of message it sends to the rest of the nation and world.

Is it smart to go down tobacco road again, to help the coal industry wage a losing battle to cling to the past?

Or would it be smarter to position Lexington as the place where researchers and entrepreneurs should come to solve coal’s problems?

The future will belong to those cities, states and nations that figure out how to mine and use coal in more environmentally responsible ways and develop the energy technologies that must someday replace coal.

To paraphrase the old Harlan County coal camp song, Commerce Lexington should think about which side of inevitable change it wants to be on.


New approaches to Kentucky’s energy challenges

April 16, 2009

A couple hundred leaders from academia, politics and business gathered Thursday in Lexington to talk about energy and Kentucky — where we are, where we need to be and how we might get there.

It was the third Energizing Kentucky conference, organized by the universities of Kentucky and Louisville and Centre and Berea colleges. The keynote speaker was Carol Browner, President Obama’s assistant for energy and climate change.

First, some bad news:

Coal provides 92 percent of Kentucky’s electricity, at some of the nation’s cheapest rates. But dealing with coal’s environmental problems could raise those costs dramatically, turning a big asset into a big liability.

Rising power rates will hurt Kentucky, the nation’s fourth-poorest state. Kentucky ranks 6th nationally in gross state product from manufacturing, much of which depends on cheap power. We’re the nation’s third-largest automaker. We produce 40 percent of the nation’s aluminum and 30 percent of its stainless steel.

Kentuckians waste a lot of electricity. We have the nation’s fifth-lowest power rates, but 20 other states have lower average monthly bills.

Since America first became alarmed about its dependence on foreign oil in the 1970s, that dependence has nearly doubled. Gasoline prices will shoot back up as the global economy recovers and demand increases.

Now, some good news:

Everyone at the conference seemed to be singing from the same songbook, more or less. Nobody was saying the solution to our energy challenges is “drill baby, drill” — or “dig Bubba, dig.” That’s a significant change.

Recent announcements about the state’s new role in developing high-tech automobile batteries had everyone in a hopeful mood.

Both Rocky Adkins, a legislative leader who works for a coal company, and Tom Fitzgerald, one of Kentucky’s most ardent environmental activists, had mostly good things to say about how state leaders are now approaching energy issues.

Gov. Steve Beshear’s state energy plan, announced last November, is a progressive document. The first three of its seven points note the need for more conservation and renewable energy. The next three deal with developing more environmentally friendly ways to use coal.

The last point in the state plan suggests reconsideration of Kentucky’s ban on nuclear energy, which remains controversial. (To read the energy plan, go to: www.governor.ky.gov and click on the Energy Independence tab.)

“It is, on balance, a sound and thoughtful plan,” said Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. “But we have our work cut out for us.”

The reality is that Kentucky must continue to rely on coal for many years to come. While the state is investing heavily in research for commercial carbon capture and “clean coal” technologies, they are now more dream than reality.

Interesting work is being done by Alltech and other Kentucky companies on bio-fuels. And there’s a lot of potential for small-scale solar power, especially for such things as home water heating. Kentucky’s rivers could produce a lot more hydro power.

Browner said the keys to energy independence will be developing new technologies and using energy more wisely to create both a strong economy and a clean environment.

“If you look at our history, you can see that we can have both,” said Browner, whose previous federal job was heading the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration.

One creative approach is a new public-private partnership called Kentucky’s Clean Energy Corps, which state Treasurer Jonathan Miller described as “weatherization on steroids.”

The program will use federal stimulus money to create jobs and improve energy efficiency in the homes of 10,000 modest-income Kentuckians. It also will try to engage young people in energy efficiency and conservation efforts.

In a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency, where the conference was held, there were a couple of dozen exhibits of energy-related projects by Kentucky students.

On one side of the room were displays of high-tech research by university students. On the other side were school science projects. Students from Russell High School in Greenup County showed photos of their school’s solar collectors. Excited first graders from Hannah McClure Elementary in Winchester told about their recycling campaign.

My favorite was a project from Chenoweth Elementary in Louisville. It was a box lined with aluminum foil and covered with plastic wrap. On a sunny day, the solar-powered oven can cook a s’more in about 15 minutes.

OK, so a solar-powered s’more oven won’t do much to solve Kentucky’s energy challenges. But the kind of creativity those two fifth-grade girls put into it just might.