Wind vs. Coal: False Choices in the Battle to Resolve Our Energy Crisis
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
When you cross the border into West Virginia along I-64 the welcome sign that used to say, "West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful," now says, "West Virginia: Open for Business."
It is a sign of the times.
According to a few area residents, the sign change coincidently occurred this fall around the same time that the state decided to approve an application for development of the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi.
West Virginia, long known to be an energy sacrifice zone for its sizable contribution to our nation's coal supply at the expense of Appalachians, is now beginning to diversify. But not everyone is excited about the prospect.
In the more pastoral eastern side of the state, which has thus far been spared, thanks to its lack of coal, the proposed 124-tower industrial scale Beech Ridge Energy Wind Farm would be built along ridgetops on the eastern front of the Alleghenies in scenic Greenbrier County.
A group of residents have formed a well-organized action group, Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy (MCRE), in opposition. To them, the project is just another big out-of-state business (this time Invenergy from Chicago), coming into the area to exploit a rural community who stands to reap little benefit.
However, to MCRE's neighbors on the western side of the state, a group known as Coal River Mountain Watch, who are battling mountaintop removal coal mining, any action to block the advances of renewable energy is insulting, to say the least.
As the country begins to awaken to the realities of global warming, West Virginia has emerged as the perfect stage to witness our nation's energy drama play out. Over the last year the two organizations and their supporting camps have clashed in bitter public debates, and the media has captured the story as a simplified struggle of dirty versus clean power.
But West Virginia's civil war is indicative of a nationwide energy crisis that will affect communities across the country and the solution will require more than building wind turbines: It will take real dialogue about the true costs of energy and what a more sustainable system might look like.
The endangered hillbilly
West Virginia is ground zero when it comes to energy in this country. As environmental writer and thinker Bill McKibben said, the state "stands as the perfect example of the bankruptcy of our energy model."
The history of coal companies in Appalachia is a tragic one full of stolen land, broken promises, and lost lives -- not unlike the story of how this country was settled and its destiny manifested.
The result has been an impoverished people, forced to work for coal companies, and as a result, "to poison their children in order to feed them," in the words of activist Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch.
She is like the Erin Brockovich of Appalachia, only she would need someone punchier than Julia Roberts to play her in a movie. Bonds is short, gray haired and always on message. She grew up in the Coal River Valley in West Virginia, a tenth generation mountaineer whose grandfather, father, cousins, ex-husband and brother worked in the mines.
Bonds has unabashedly said that the wind debate in her state is a class issue.
The eastern half of Greenbrier County, where these turbines would sit, is decidedly wealthier in comparison to Bonds' turf in the southwestern part of the state, where the coal industry has been entrenched for 150 years.
"The more coal we mine, the poorer we get. We don't have good roads, good infrastructure, water and sewage -- we have nothing," said Bonds. "They treat us like a third-world country, and the rest of America turns their faces away. There is no prosperity here."
It is hard to argue with her. The town of Whitesville, where her organization is headquartered, is a sad stretch of dilapidated brick buildings puckered by empty lots with tufts of grass attempting to reclaim the concrete.
In between empty storefronts is a gas station and a market/cafÃ© that advertises a special on chewing tobacco and the steak 'n gravy dinner, and there are signs that say, "Support our Troops," and even one proclaiming, "Yes to Clean Energy."
If you drive east from the town, in the direction of Greenbrier County, steep hills rise on either side of a small highway with tiny homes built so close to the road that the lips of their porches seem to touch the pavement.
These forested foothills hide what is behind them -- acres upon acres of what looks like moonscape but used to be one of the world's most diverse hardwood forests. As coal has gotten harder and harder to reach, the coal industry in West Virginia has resorted to mountaintop removal mining, blowing from 600-1,000 feet off the tops of mountains with 3 millions pounds of explosives per day. The process results in a tremendous amount of excess debris, technically about 15 feet of "overburden" for every one foot of coal, Bonds said, which is then dumped into valleys, burying streams and covering habitat.
Coal River Mountain Watch reports that 400,000 acres of Appalachia's mountains have been leveled and 1,400 streams buried by the process.
While many valleys are being filled with mountain debris, others are being converted into sludge dams (called "slurry impoundments" by the industry), giant holding tanks filled with billions of gallons of wastewater leftover from cleaning coal at preparation plants.
Most folks in the area live in hollows, pronounced locally like "hollers," the valley area between ridges. But blasting, and flooding and landslides from unstable valley fills are forcing people to abandon their homes. And they aren't the only ones -- hungry black bears, snakes, deer, raccoons, possums, and the whole cast of forest creatures are among the displaced.
"It is a total disregard for the price of humans, for the people of Appalachia, for our land and our children," said Bonds.
You don't have to own a plane to understand the destruction. A quick trip on Google Earth reveals the devastation, the deforestation, and the geological assault on a mountain region that should stand as a national treasure.
The Appalachian Mountains are 480 million years old. They have rubbed shoulders with the African continent and four times the Southern Appalachians have survived the creeping fingers of advancing glaciers, making the area one of oldest and most diverse forests. The region also yields a bountiful crop of ginseng, with 4,800 pounds of it being harvested in West Virginia a year.
"These forests are the lungs of the east," says Bonds, and they are also a well-stocked medicine cabinet.
The mountains have also produced mountain people. Bonds wears a shirt that says "Save the Endangered Hillbilly."
"You can't have hillbillies if you don't have hills, and they are blowing ours up," Bonds recently told a woman who laughed at the shirt's premise.
You can't have mountaineers without mountains and as the mountains of West Virginia are being destroyed, so are a people's heritage, Bond explains. To Appalachians, "hillbilly" symbolizes a way of life that was based on subsistence, resourcefulness, and an intricate knowledge of the natural environment.
The future of Appalachians is tied to the land, and their joint survival will likely hinge on the energy decisions made in the next few years and decades. But they are not the only ones in danger.
"People may not see this coal, but when they flip a switch on, they are destroying my life," said Bonds. "They are also destroying their own children's future, and they are destroying any type of future this earth may have."
That's where wind farms come in. Not only do they help provide an alternative to coal consumption, but they are also a wake up call to a reality that includes the imminent threats of global climate change.
"It is so important for wind farms to be in a place where people can see them -- that takes the true cost of electricity out of the hills and hollers and poverty stricken Appalachia and puts it in your backyard -- honey, you look at it -- there's cost for it," Bonds says.
This is her beef with the folks in Greenbrier County and the folks in Massachusetts blocking Cape Wind, an off-shore wind farm, and the others around the country that don't want turbines to spoil their views.
"There is a lot to be said about having to look at one's energy impact," McKibben agrees. "I've lost my patience with the aesthetics argument against wind turbines. In the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn't be doing this, but this is not the best of all possible worlds."
Indeed it seems that the vast majority of Americans are blinded by the glaring light of indifference about where their energy comes from and never consider the true costs.
"It is important to get turbines out there in the face of America so people don't think the electricity comes from the electricity fairy," Bonds adds. "I think these people in Greenbrier County need to understand where their electricity is coming from. They are using coal-powered electricity off our blood, sweat, and tears."
Dave Burhman concedes that he is privileged to own land in Greenbrier County. He and his wife Rose moved from the east coast to the woods just north of Lewisburg in Greenbrier County over 35 years ago.
Since they've been in the area, Lewisburg has matured into an artsy rural town of 4,000 with restored brick buildings containing bookstores, gourmet coffee shops, galleries, and antique and craft stores. The town also has an osteopathic medical school and one of the country's two remaining Carnegie Halls.
It is the kind of place where one could see bumper stickers like "practice compassionate impeachment," and if you travel in certain circles, you could be quite convinced the county would have voted democratic in the last presidential election (of course, you'd have been wrong).
It is also the kind of place that inspires people to get back to the land. That's what originally drew the Burhmans to the area. They worked as caretakers of a property for a year, while Burhman built their wood home from a partial structure that stood on the 50 acres of mostly wooded land they purchased, cheap back then, in the hills 15 miles outside of Lewisburg. Although Burhman had no carpentry skills to speak of, 35 years later their house is still standing, with a nice-sized kitchen and a wood-burning stove that they feed with what they cut from their land.
They grow organic vegetables for a living, drive a late model Honda Accord, and try to "live lightly on the land," they say.
When the war in Iraq broke out, they felt powerless and distraught over the decisions of our country's leadership, Burhman explained. They wished they could make change, even in some small way.
If you are a liberal person with environmental leanings and a progressive political nature, the Burhmans and their friends feel very familiar. However, their group has taken a decidedly unpopular stand in the larger environmental community. Even the local chapter of the Sierra Club doesn't support them.
In the fall of 2005, Invenergy waltzed into town with what was announced as a "done deal" of a wind project. Following a community meeting with Invenergy reps, which the Burhmans said was "abrasive and insulting," the group that became MCRE started coalescing, and Burhman signed on as the media relations person, prompting him and Rose to spend the winter researching wind development.
They came to the following conclusions: Wind turbines kill birds and bats, and not enough studies have been done to know how serious the problem is; installing 124 turbines that would be close to 400 feet tall would cause damage to the environment from road construction and would break up mountain habitat; the project could reduce property values; and wind energy is not a cost-effective technology, nor is it an environmentally sound solution, because wind's intermittency would prevent its replacing traditional energy sources such as coal-burning power plants.
And of course, the turbines would be unsightly. They would compromise the scenic integrity of the area, a place that is dependent upon tourism for the bulk of its economy, which draws $230 million annually from visitors to the area who come for caving, hiking, rafting and hunting. The towers would sit along the backbone of beautiful oak-clad hills that rise several hundred feet from green pastures.
"The more our country begins to look like identical shopping malls, the more we should work to preserve these special places. Yeah, we are part of the gentry, but that doesn't seem like a reason to put up turbines," said Burhman while out walking one fall afternoon on the 77-acre farm of MCRE member John Stroud.
"People may come once, everyone slows down to check out a traffic accident," Burhman said, countering arguments that the turbines would be an attraction. "But you won't hear people saying, 'let's go see the turbines in the snow' or 'let's go see the turbines with the fall colors.'"
Stroud will soon have a view of two turbines, A1 and A2, from his backyard, something he is not happy about. "I like rural America, I like wild places, I chose this place out at the end of nowhere because that is what I like," he said.
The men say that they would be willing to consider the project if they thought that the turbines would contribute a substantial amount of energy. "I've gone from not wanting turbines in my backyard to not wanting them anywhere in the eastern United States," said Stroud. "The technology is inefficient. They will ruin 23 miles of ridgetop for a miniscule amount of electricity. If they could get the same amount out of one mile of ridgetop maybe we could live with it, but the tradeoff isn't worth it. They don't belong in the eastern mountains."
For backup they quote a 2005 report from E.ON Netz, one of the leading electricity providers in Germany that manages about one-third of the country's power. The report said, "Wind energy is only able to replace traditional power stations to a limited extent.
Their dependence on the prevailing wind conditions means that wind power has a limited load factor even when technically available."
But as international renewables expert Dr. David Elliot of the U.K.'s Open University explained, "In Germany, most of the wind capacity is in the north, and most of the demand is in the south, which means a distribution/transmission problem. Big utilities like E.ON are unhappy with having to pay for this, which is why they tend to be critical of wind."
Currently Germany is the world leader in wind power, with 18,000 turbines supplying six percent of the country's energy and more development planned.
"As the use of wind expands in Germany, it will certainly require more money to be spent on upgrading the transmission network," said Elliot. "The private utilities (including E.ON) are trying to avoid this. So I'd be a little wary of their dismissal of wind."
The anti-wind lobby believes that wind is too intermittent to replace traditional power plants -- and to some extent they are right. But most wind advocates don't see the breeze being a fossil fuel replacement -- not just yet anyway. A cleaner energy future will likely include a combination of renewables and rethinking our energy system as a whole.
In the meantime, there are some solutions to enable wind to help reduce the amount of coal we burn. New data has shown that linking wind farms throughout a country or region is able to dramatically reduce fluctuation in the grid. And, Elliot adds, "It may be foolish just to think in terms of single national (or in the U.S., state) system -- you can import power from other regions to balance local /regional wind variations."
Tragedy of the commons
John Stroud has always feared that one day his pastoral paradise would be spoiled by industry. "Twenty years ago, right after I bought this place," he says. "I had a nightmare that I woke up and walked out onto my porch and there were six huge smokestacks just belching out coal smoke up that ridge," he says gesturing the rise beyond the sheep pasture.
In fact, there had been a proposal for such a facility at the time, but a lack of water Stroud said, kept them from building one. Back then he was even thinking of setting up a turbine on his property because wind, on a small scale, seemed like a good idea.
But he never got around to building it. He didn't have to. The "electricity fairy" in Greenbrier County is Allegheny Power, a company with 1.5 million customers who get an estimated 95 percent of their power from Appalachian coal; 18 million tons of which they burn each year.
But don't just point your finger at those in Greenbrier County, more than half of the country uses electricity generated from burning coal. Appalachian coal ends up all over the south and east and even, Bonds says, is shipped overseas.
But with all the resources that West Virginia has, most of the wealth doesn't stay in the state -- it is one of the poorest in the country. "I sit here every day and watch millions of dollars of coal go by me," said Bonds. "Everything that leaves this area is gone forever, and they are taking the riches to their own banks and their own states and it sure ain't in West Virginia."
In West Virginia, about 70 percent of the electricity that is produced there is exported out of the state, mostly to the larger cities and suburbs. Those profiting are, of course, the corporations, like Massey Energy of Richmond, Va., and Arch Coal of St. Louis, Mo.
Massey advertises that it has "a strong market position as the largest producer of Central Appalachian coal and America's fourth-largest producer of coal by revenues. In 2005, Massey mined and sold 42.3 million tons" of coal. Arch, likewise, is the second largest coal producer in the nation, extracting 140 million tons a year from across the country.
Of course this is not a new situation for West Virginia. "We started out with a bunch of carpetbaggers coming down here for railroads, logging, coal," said Burhman. "The area has been treated like a colony with the resources benefiting other states."
Profits from the Beech Ridge wind farm, Burhman points out, will go to Chicago's Invenergy, and the land that is being rented for the turbines belongs to packaging giant MeadWestvaco Corp. of Glen Allen, Va., who will stand each year to gain $868,000 (at $7,000 for each of the 124 turbines), a drop in the bucket for a company that reported a net income of $56 million in the last quarter alone.
The energy that is produced from the wind farm, advertised as enough to power 50,000 homes, won't go to the residents of Greenbrier County, but will go mostly out of state with the rest of the energy.
Burhman has little hope that the project will be halted. It has already been approved by three politically appointed public service commissioners, despite 80 percent of the more than 2,000 public comments that were against the project. The commission even ignored the recommendations of its own staff to reduce the number of turbines, Burhman said. MCRE has appealed to the state supreme court, but, as Stroud says, they are likely slanted toward energy companies like the rest of the state government.
"We have let ourselves be exploited for 150 years, and we are just going to continue to do it," said Stroud. "Come on in, use our resources, you guys get all the benefits, and we'll live with the down side of it."
Burhman said that, perhaps, if Invenergy had come into the area and asked for feedback from the community on the project, things might have been different. Perhaps, if they had offered to let the community have power from, say, one of the turbines, things might have been different. But instead, he says, the company came to town with arrogance, and the townspeople were humiliated by their lack of respect.
It was eastern Greenbrier County's first glimpse at what people in the coalfields have been enduring for over a century. And it would seem that the newfound common ground would have brought the communities together, but so far it has only created more of a divide.
"I think it is a reasonable argument," McKibben concedes about the problems of large corporations controlling these projects. "I think we need to build local economies of all kinds, including energy."
At a conference held by the Energy and Environmental Research Unit at the Open University in the U.K., Elliot explained that corporations built much of Britain's wind projects, and it has created resentment in local communities.
Perhaps it would be unwise with wind to strive for the same corporate model as the coal industry, with large, out-of-state corporations holding the cards and rural communities being forced to play what they are dealt. Just because the energy is renewable doesn't mean the system as a whole will be sustainable.
If that is the case, then there are other models to examine. In Germany nearly half of the projects are locally owned, and Denmark, which gets about 20 percent of its energy from wind, has pioneered a more grassroots vision. "In Denmark, most of the schemes are owned by local people, often via local co-ops and community-based enterprises, and there is much less local opposition," Elliot contends. "Direct ownership may not be the only factor influencing response to wind projects, but it is interesting that the Danish wind farm enthusiasts often recite the old Danish proverb: 'Your own pigs don't smell.'"
But it is important that people walk their talk. "I'm only sympathetic to people who are actually doing it," McKibben said. "It is possible to have community ownership of these kind of things, but in too many places it is just one more argument to deploy instead of getting down to hard work of actually getting something done about it."
It's great to offer valid concerns, but solutions are needed as well.
Rose Burhman points to the benefits of conservation. "We are very tuned into global warming. We know it is real and something needs to be done. But people can do things like insulate their homes, and that will save more energy than wind will produce," she said referring the British organization Country Guardian who posted a study (done by an insulation company) that found "saving pollution by insulation is 55 times more cost-effective than saving it by wind turbines."
"I think wind is calling attention away from the real problem, which is much deeper, our consumption is out of control," she added.
McKibben agrees wholeheartedly with that point, "No new energy technology makes sense if the goal is to continue to provide an absurd amount of energy for Americans to waste," he said. "We need to reduce the amount of energy we use. We need to cut home energy use by half."
These things can and should be done. "Anyone who can afford cable TV can afford to make their home more energy efficient," McKibben said. But renewable energy and conservation is unfortunately not an either/or proposition.
A recent report by Sir Nicholas Stern, the head of Britain's Economic Service and the former chief economist at the World Bank, said that there was overwhelming evidence to suggest that climate change was happening and would result in "very serious risks."
"Such changes would transform the physical geography of the world," the report states. What we'd have to look forward to would be economic catastrophe, and millions facing homelessness, starvation, inadequate water resources, failed agriculture, melting glaciers and sea-level rise.
Despite the groundwork of the Kyoto Treaty and pledges from hundreds of nations, most countries have seen their greenhouse gas emissions rise, and Stern's report is just one of many released in the last several months from leading scientists and experts detailing the reality of global climate change.
Clearly we need to address our unchecked consumption, but that will merely be part of the equation, not the solution.
"From an efficiency standpoint, wind won't overtake traditional coal plants," said Dave Burhman. "We should put energy into cleaning coal-fired power plants, installing scrubbers that will help remove nitrous oxide and mercury."
But the idea of "clean coal" has its drawbacks, namely, it still involves using coal, and that coal has to come from somewhere.
If you tell Judy Bonds that people believe the answer to our environmental woes and energy crisis are "clean" coal technology and putting scrubbers on power plants, her anger and frustration will lead her to a sharp, impassioned monologue.
"Them people up there have no idea of what it's like to live underneath the rule of a coal company. I've watched my mother pull a gun on an insurance man so she could get my father's black lung benefits; I've watched my daddy die of black lung, watched black water roll down my streams, watched my grandson stand in a stream full of dead fish, watched our children go to a school full of coal dust with a sludge dam and a mountaintop removal site behind it," she says.
"You have no idea what the coal industry has done to these people, no idea of the 100,000 men this coal industry has killed in this state. You have no idea what it is like for your neighbor's children to lay in a bed when it rains and worry about a sludge dam breaking or worrying about water flooding off a valley fill with your kids sleeping fully clothed in the bed plotting out escape routes -- like Maria's children, suffering from PTSD because the mountain come down on them and flooded out their yard and they had no place to go."
The truth is, while people have spent considerable energy and money figuring out a cleaner way to burn coal, no one has yet come up with a way to get coal out from inside a mountain without destroying the environment and adjacent communities. So, "clean" coal is not much of a solution to people who lives in areas of extraction.
The suggestion also doesn't consider the enormity of the problem. We have to start thinking bigger -- much bigger. In a groundbreaking article published in Nature in 1998 NYU physicist Dr. Martin Hoffert wrote that we would have to double our energy production by 2050 to meet the increase in need and all of that energy would have to from carbon emission-free sources in order to stabilize the global climate.
"The most unrealistic approach may be to base climate change mitigation policy on more efficient versions of today's technology," wrote Hoffert. "We don't cross oceans on sailing ships any more, however efficient; we fly over them. Let's not lose the game from a failure of imagination."
Hoffert recently addressed Congress, advocating for an Apollo-sized mission to fuel technological advancement. In a report he authored in 2002 with dozens of other leaders in the field, he explained that no current technology exists to solve our global environmental woes. Neither will the "hand of the market" be our savior.
"Do we even know how to selectively accelerate technology development, as World War II and the Cold War did, without the adrenaline-pumping fear of blowing each others brains out?" Hoffert asks. "Green energy research, so calm and peaceful seeming, has not, despite some achievements, succeeded in the market. We must learn to do it better as the 'grand geophysical experiment' [climate change] unfolds. Our future depends on it."
Technology of community
Hoffert is a self-described technological optimist and McKibben, author of the landmark book End of Nature, has never really been known for looking on the bright side of things. But these days McKibben does see some hope, and it comes from a different kind of technology.
Writing for a the New York Review of Book s, McKibben explained, "The technology we need most badly is the technology of community -- the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain."
When Bonds advocates for increased consumption from renewable energy, including more government funding for wind turbines, she is offering part of the solution. Another part will need to come from reducing our consumption, as the Burhmans suggested. We will also need massive amounts of government funding on an Apollo scale, as Hoffert suggests, to trigger development of appropriate technology.
But what we are still missing is a community of cohesion, an inspired patriotism for the world we live in.
"We Americans haven't needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness -- local solidarity -- has disappeared," said McKibben, explaining why community-oriented Europeans consume half as much energy as us, but have the same standard of living.
In West Virginia, Dave and Rose Burhman are opposing wind turbines because they feel they are protecting their neighbors, looking out for their community, just as they feel Judy Bonds is fighting for hers.
But since we are talking about a problem that will affect the Arctic and the Amazon, and will reach from New York to New Delhi, we will need to start thinking about community more broadly.
Hoffert believes we can eventually run our world on renewable energy, but we need to reconstruct our grid to enable energy to travel over long distances. That project is going to take a lot of work, a lot of vision, and a lot of will.
Burhman says we shouldn't put up turbines now because the technology isn't there yet. But Hoffert disagrees.
"We should do everything we can," he said, including building wind farms. "WWII is a good example. As a kid we used to collect old newspapers for the war effort -- everyone was doing something -- we were all working toward a common goal."
Global warming may be the first true test of humanity and we will have to decide if it will be something that unites us or something that divides us. And if it divides us, will it be along lines of race or class or nationality?
If it unites us, will we be able to engineer a world of sustainability, where we can aim for truly global community instead of simply a global economy?
West Virginia has a chance to be at the forefront of the change we need. Instead of pointing to the state as an example of the "bankruptcy of our energy model," as McKibben said, it can be model of what sustainable energy and sustainable community looks like. It can be a sign of the times.
Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.