Coal is a mystery: Why, in the 21st century, does half of United States electricity come from this 18th-century fuel? In the age of nano-tech, why can’t we seem to make the investments necessary to effect a great leap, making renewable energy technology truly affordable? If we were to really add up all of the human and environmental costs of coal, what’s the bill that we are really paying? And, finally, what can we do right now to spread great solutions options, and turn the tide?
Joshua Frank’s interview on Alternet of Peter Bull, Director/Producer of the new documentary by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Dirty Business: “Clean Coal” and the Battle for Our Energy Future, addresses these questions and more. The interview was actually so good, I can’t help pulling out a few excerpts for all of us who are curious and/or concerned about coal. If your interest is piqued, you may also choose to screen Dirty Business.
Excerpts below from the article The Dirty Business of Coal: How Our Addiction to an 18th-Century Energy Source Is Killing Us: A new documentary asks why we are still relying on this antiquated energy source and challenges us to move to cleaner, healthier alternatives are cross-posted from Alternet.
“October 21, 2010 | … Coal has produced power in our country for over 100 years. It pulled us through the Industrial Revolution and has pumped electricity into the hearts of our cities, keeping us warm through winter and up and running throughout the day. It’s also caused insurmountable death and destruction along the way, contributing more than its fair share to climate change, water pollution and worker fatalities. So how do we challenge such an entrenched part of our culture and start the process of reversing these trends? That’s the big question. Dirty Business shows us the way out of our energy and climate conundrum; we just need the political will to buck the entrenched special interests of the status quo and get imaginative with new alternative solutions.
Joshua Frank: Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to make this film, what drew you to the topic of coal?
Peter Bull: This film grew out of another project I did with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). That was a one-hour documentary for PBS/Frontline called Hot Politics, about the politics of global warming and investigated why the Bush 1, Clinton and Bush 2 administrations all failed to take meaningful action on the greatest threat that humans have come up against. Now it looks as if the Obama administration is about to get added to the list.
That program focused on how scientists like James Hansen and politicians like Tim Wirth and Al Gore tried to sound the alarm and how legislation and U.S. involvement in the Kyoto Protocol was stymied by special interests, particularly the coal and oil lobby, which mounted an aggressive disinformation campaign casting doubt about the science of climate change and playing to the media’s propensity for on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand reporting. That kind of reporting is valid when dealing with contentious political issues but has no business being applied to reporting on scientific issues. But with climate change, the result has been that 50 percent of the airtime is given to the less than 1 percent who profess to be skeptics, while the overwhelmingly vast international scientific consensus that man-made climate change not only is real, but accelerating at a dramatic rate.
…I was dumbfounded to learn that in 2007 there were plans on the books for building some 160 new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. alone, and at the time we were approaching a presidential election, you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing ads for something called “clean coal.”
On top of this, we also felt a need to do a film that not only pointed out the problem — the link between coal and climate and demystify this ‘clean coal’ stuff — but also do a film that pointed to solutions. The film version of An Inconvenient Truth had come out and was great about explaining the problem, but on solutions? Not so much. So, we embarked on a pretty ambitious attempt to cover a fair amount of ground in this film — show that coal had impacts beyond Appalachia and touched all of us; give a clear and fair assessment of the proposed technology of carbon capture and sequestration, the industry’s “clean coal” fix that would theoretically allow us to continue to burn coal but not release CO2 into the atmosphere; but also to look at the extent to which we could replace coal by increasing our energy efficiency and developing sustainable, renewable forms of energy.”
… JF: I guess I’m thinking more along the lines of solutions.
PB: Right. Maybe part of it is that our energy infrastructure is so economically as well as culturally hard-wired. We can’t imagine actually keeping track of and paying a reasonable price for the electricity that saturates our lives, no more than Americans will countenance paying a reasonable price for the gasoline that propels our ubiquitous cars. We take cheap electricity and gasoline as much for granted as we do the water from our taps, and the bad news is they’re all going to get real expensive real soon as we run out of all three! It doesn’t have to be that way, as Tom and Sean Casten, from our film, will tell you, but our society has grown up with a very, very inefficient energy system that doesn’t tabulate the externalities of environmental and health costs into the product’s price.
We eventually moved factories and power plants out of the cities to mitigate pollution in densely populated areas, but that created a huge, centralized power and utility industry that is programmed to send us electrons one way — to us, to consume as much as possible, not as efficiently as possible. That’s created a whole industrial sector whose traditional incentives are completely at odds with what would be necessary to replace coal: be more energy efficient, first — the lowest hanging fruit — while developing sustainable, renewable technology like wind, solar, geothermal, and stuff like algae and maybe switch grass and who knows what else? Those who argue for a quick conversion to renewables want to decentralize the energy system and power grid, make it local and make it a smart grid that has feedback loops to allow individuals and localities to feed electrons back into the system and reverse the one-way system we have now. That is hard to wrap your head around, and a lot of people with vested interests don’t want to, as Pete Ferrell, the wind developer in our film found out; but it’s an ostrich-like response.
So, start with coal, they argue. And give much greater subsidies and incentives to create alternative energy sources to scale up as quickly as possible to replace coal. Studies like “Beyond Business as Usual,” published in May by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc. conclude that, “by the middle of this century, the U.S. could replace coal-fired electricity generation with energy efficiency and renewable energy, and we could reduce our use of nuclear power. Near-term costs would be modest, and long term savings would accrue.”
And yet a recent Bloomberg study shows that governments worldwide are still giving 12 times the amount of subsidies — still! — to the fossil fuel industries we need to eventually retire. That takes us back to the truly perplexing conundrum that despite what good science tells us, whether we’re going to be able make the necessary changes in time is, tragically, a political problem. And our political system, for all its charms, doesn’t seem equipped to handle it.”
You can read the full article on Alternet.