The Climate Race

Is there energy to slow climate change?

Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner Oct 29, 2009
The Climate Race

Is there energy to slow climate change?

Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner Oct 29, 2009

CORRECTION: This story as broadcast misstated the proportion of the nation’s electricity that is generated by burning coal. It is 45 percent. The script has been corrected.


KAI RYSSDAL: Much as it has on the international level, the domestic debate over what to do about global warming came to a political fork in the road today. The Senate Environment Committee is discussing that chamber’s climate change bill. They’re in their third day of hearings. But they may not get much further.

Today, Republicans on the panel said they’re considering boycotting more meetings. They want an analysis of the costs of the bill from the Environmental Protection Agency. The head of the EPA says that could take a month. By then it’ll almost be time for Copenhagen — a big U.N. meeting on global warming is set for early December. Hopes are fading for a comprehensive agreement at that meeting.

But like it or not, there are economic, political, and human problems that come with living on a warmer planet. That’s the backdrop for our series, “The Climate Race.” Today, sustainability reporters Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner explain what it’s going to take to break us of our greenhouse-gas habit.

Sarah, doesn’t sound like it’s going to be easy.

SARAH: Well, that’s right, Kai. In fact, this is the part where you start to get a little overwhelmed. Because scientists are telling us in order to escape the worst effects of global warming, it’s going to take a huge transformation in how we make power. Some say the world needs to convert around 80 percent of the energy we now get from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives.

SAM: Right, and the scale of this is daunting. One engineer actually did the math. And he found that getting to even a quarter of that goal would require installing a wind turbine every five minutes for the next 25 years.

SARAH: And that’s pretty hard to imagine. But at the same time, many scientists and engineers are telling us this is doable. We already have the technical know-how. We just basically need a World War II-style mobilization to make it happen.

SAM: Right. But instead of tanks and artillery shells, this time it means retooling factories to churn out those wind turbines I mentioned — and also components for nuclear power plants, solar panels….

SARAH: Yeah, and some big investors are already buying into the idea. Google, for example, is putting money into a solar thermal plant about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles.

[Outside sounds.]

ROGERS: Right now we’re between the two fields, this is field one to our right….

SARAH: So, Sam, this solar plant is run by a start-up company called eSolar. Now this is not solar panels on rooftops. This is acres and acres of mirrors focusing the sun’s energy to make steam. It’s pretty elementary technology, actually. I mean, the Chinese supposedly were using mirrors back in 700 BC to ignite firewood.

SAM: But instead of firewood, you’re heating up water.

SARAH: Or oil or molten salt … different companies are trying out different things. eSolar’s using water. One of eSolar’s executives, Dale Rogers, showed me around:

[sound from mirror field]

DALE ROGERS: For this particular site we have almost 24,000 mirrors. We have two full fields, two towers, two receivers….

SARAH: So, Sam, imagine this: You’ve got row upon row of solar mirrors out in the desert, and they’re all reflecting the sun’s rays onto a 200-foot tower. The top of that tower is filled with water. Think of it like a big solar boiler. You can see this thing a mile away, it’s so bright.

Now, the water in that boiler is heated by all that energy reflecting off those mirrors. It gets to over 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The steam created then drives a standard steam generator that makes electricity.

Here’s Rogers again:

ROGERS: Our goal is to be competitive with natural gas-type systems in the near term. In the longer term, we’d like to be competitive with coal.

SARAH: In fact, some advocates of solar thermal say we could power pretty much the entire United States if we fill an area in the Southwest, an area about the size of New Jersey, with these mirrors and receiver towers. We have the know-how to do that today.

SAM: Right, but technology is only half the battle. This stuff costs a lot of money. And you need the political will to drive that kind of transformation.

I spent some time in coal country, in the hills of West Virginia. And I can tell you that for many people there energy isn’t just about technology, it’s a way of life.

Here, listen to Bill Raney. He’s the president the state’s coal association:

BILL RANEY: The good Lord put more coal in the ground in America than any other country in the world. And we need to treat it as an asset just as it is on any company’s balance sheet.

SARAH: So, Sam, I can only imagine that in a place like West Virginia all this talk of a green energy revolution falls a little flat.

SAM: To say the least. But there is a growing number of people who want to move away from coal.

Judy Bonds is one of them. She’s a coal miner’s daughter. Her family’s lived in the same valley for 10 generations. But she’s become an outspoken advocate for wind power. And that doesn’t always go over well in the middle of coal country.

Here she is:

JUDY BONDS: We have been called un-American. We have been called communists. I personally have been attacked, and there are threats of attacks because of the fact that we want to bring in wind farms, and the coal industry considers that a threat to their bottom line, to their reign.

SAM: Bonds heads a citizens’ action group called Coal River Mountain Watch. They’re fighting to stop a coal mine slated for one of the last untouched mountains in the area. They want to put hundreds of wind turbines on the top of the mountain.

And this is the reason I went to West Virginia. Because the battle they’re waging over the future of this one mountain shows just how hard it is to compete against an entrenched industry like coal.

Here’s Raney again:

RANEY: We make bituminous coal here. And we make electricity. And we send that electricity to D.C. and to Chicago and to Atlanta and all over the Midwest and the East. And our people are very proud of what they do.

SAM: Problem is, all that coal Raney is talking about is also the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions here in the U.S.

Another advocate of wind, Lorelei Scarbro, told me the future of Coal River Mountain — either as a wind farm or a coal mine — represents the larger choice we face as a nation.

LORELEI SCARBRO: One is clean energy that will last forever, and the other is dirty energy that is finite and will some day run out.

SARAH: So I have to ask, Sam, who’s winning the fight? I mean, does wind even have a chance here?

SAM: Well, actually the potential for tapping wind power on some of these ridges is tremendous. But coal by far is our cheapest form of energy today. Although a lot of people would argue that the only reason that price is so low is because none of the external costs are accounted for.

SARAH: External costs meaning the carbon dioxide that comes from burning coal.

SAM: Right. And those are costs that some in the coal industry don’t acknowledge.

Here’s Don Blankenship. He’s the CEO of Massey Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world. And it’s got the permits to mine Coal River Mountain. We talked in his office near the Kentucky border:

DON BLANKENSHIP: There is no global warming. We went through the population fear. We went through the killer bee fear. It’s just the next phase — it will go away.

SAM: And if it doesn’t, and if legislation passes and coal emissions are taxed and regulated, what then?

BLANKENSHIP: Teach your children to speak Chinese, because if we’re going to play around with windmills and solar panels, we’ll fall behind.

SARAH: It doesn’t sound like he’s a big fan of renewable energy.

SAM: Not exactly. And he’s even against capturing and storing carbon emissions underground. That’s the technology that could essentially keep his industry in business if carbon is regulated in this country. Blankenship says it makes American coal producers uncompetitive. And he says without coal West Virginia’s economy wouldn’t exist.

And he does have a point. In many parts of the state, it’s pretty much the only game in town.

But Judy Bonds from Coal River Mountain Watch says that’s nothing to celebrate. Here she is again:

BONDS: Listen, they’re saying coal is West Virginia’s economy, it’s our prosperity. Well, excuse me, where is the prosperity? We’ve been mining coal for over 110 years and we’re the poorest state in the nation.

SAM: Still, for better or worse coal has been at the heart of West Virginia’s economy for more than a century, and it’s still very much at the heart of the U.S. energy mix.

SARAH: Right, it accounts for 45 percent of the electricity we make in this country.

SAM: And that gives you a sense of the scale of change that would have to happen to replace that coal with clean energy. Any way you look at it, this is going to be a long-term process, with many bumps along the road.

And there’s the rub.

Klaus Lackner — he’s a geophysicist at Columbia University — says even if we mount that World War II effort you mentioned earlier, there’s still plenty of coal and oil to tempt us if things get tough.

KLAUS LACKNER: The giant pool of fossil carbon we still have is 90 percent or more of what we started with. We have just scratched the surface of that. And this will not end in our lifetimes or our children’s lifetimes. So as a result, it sits there and it says, We’re cheap, we’re easy, and just use it up.

SARAH: Which is why a lot of scientists who at one time wouldn’t even discuss the idea of adapting to a changing climate now see it as a necessity.

And we’ll talk about that tomorrow, including how one major U.S. city is already planning for the worst.

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