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On a Clear Day

Posted by Ron Jones

Jan 18, 2014 3:52:30 PM

On a clear day, a phenomenon that for many people occurs less and less frequently now, you not only hear the endless warning whistles of the diesel-electric engines but you can actually watch the coal trains that rumble by day and night, twenty-four/seven past towns, cities, farms and fields as they transport countless tons of strip-mined coal from the parched steppes of Wyoming and other distant locations to gigantic holding yards at power plants in places like Texas and Georgia.

What most of us never see, perhaps because we don’t really want to, is the process by which that mile and a half long load of former living matter, the product of ancient sunlight rendered toxic over geologic time, is skillfully dumped by powerful hydraulic lifts in a matter of minutes into a holding yard approaching the size of the island of Manhattan and then efficiently incinerated in roughly eight hours, making room for the next delivery, which, though only hours behind, is still a state or two away, but right on schedule.

The people who consume the cheap electricity being generated there will surely see the light it delivers at the flick of a switch, the entertainment and information it enables them to access at the touch of a remote, and the way it makes their appliances come to “life”. They apparently don’t notice the empty hopper cars leaving trails of black dust as they head back to the coal fields for another load, and if they do see the mountainous piles of ash and the choking, blinding torrents belching from the smokestacks they seem to have learned to ignore them.

They also seem to be unaware that each kilowatt of electricity generated in this manner consumes approximately thirty gallons of fresh water in the process, all this at a time when huge regions of the country remain under severe drought conditions. Are we oblivious or do we simply put our own convenience and self interest ahead of every other consideration?

Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a landmark case challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from “stationary sources”, like power plants and factories. The case, American Chemistry Council (ACC), et al, v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will be briefed and argued through the fall and winter and a decision is expected in late spring 2014.

Make no mistake, this is a case that pits the profit making ability of special interests - the aforementioned ACC, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others - against those who would argue that the greater good, that is, the health of humans and other species, as well as the viability of water and air that we all depend on for life itself, should trump financial interests and that we need to take steps, even those that adversely affect the corporate bottom line, to prevent further destruction of natural systems.

Sadly, on Wednesday the National Association of Home Builders issued an e-release announcing its support for the suit stating that:

“NAHB is pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear…(the case)…to challenge EPA’s plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.”

Interesting, I suppose, but I have been a dues paying member of the organization continuously since 1989 and no one asked my opinion before issuing the statement.

The release goes on to say, “Because of the way EPA has interpreted the statute, many NAHB members might be forced to obtain an expensive pre-construction permit for greenhouse gas emissions, which would bring most multifamily and mixed-use development to a halt. Some single-family and even some master-planned community development would also be affected.”

This comes in spite of the fact that buildings, including homes, are the largest consumers of electricity in this country and the majority of that power is produced by coal-fired plants.

The organization’s announcement follows closely on the heels of final action hearings conducted by the International Code Council (ICC) in Atlantic City that included decisions on proposals by the NAHB that would have reinstated tradeoffs in home energy performance, intended to relax the standards and eliminate gains in the energy codes made over the previous two code update cycles, effectively rolling them back to 2006 levels.

The code officials voted down the most significant of the proposals, and for the third straight cycle, supported energy efficiency in residential buildings which proponents, including many of us in the building industry, believe to be in the long term interests of the home buying public, and indeed, the population as a whole.

As October began, we celebrated the opening of the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon, held for the first time in southern California and featuring nineteen projects designed and built by university student teams from across the U. S. as well as Canada and Europe. We were treated to innovation and creativity of the highest order and we were inspired by the excitement and commitment of the next generation of builders as they strive to come up with solutions to challenges in the built environment.

Unfortunately we simultaneously learned that for the first time since records have been kept, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at four hundred parts per million, a level that takes us to the brink of what most climate science experts describe as irreversible climate change.

Is it still possible that we can learn to set aside our special interests, as individuals and as specific industries, and recognize the long term consequences of our short term strategies? Do we have the capacity to see through the smoke and undertake the incremental changes that are needed in order to make a successful, sustainable future possible? On a clear day, what does tomorrow look like?

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