Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Jan. 13, 2012

A group of Bosnians transport coal for heating in horse drawn carts, on a road near Sarajevo ,Bosnia, on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. The average unemployment rate is up to 42 percent according to the Bosnian government. Collecting coal by hand and selling it on a local market is the only way an impoverished category of the Bosnian population can survive the winter. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

In the wake of this week’s State of the State address by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — and the governor’s full-speed-ahead view, no holds barred view of fossil fuels — it’s interesting that the Brookings Institute has a new report out that tells us:

State clean energy funds (CEFs) have emerged as effective tools that states can use to accelerate the development of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. These clean energy funds, which exist in over 20 states, generate about $500 million per year in dedicated support from utility surcharges and other sources, making them significant public investors in thousands of clean energy projects.

It’s especially interesting because it discusses a kind of Washington paralysis that Gov. Tomblin doesn’t seem to mind — inaction on climate change and green energy:

Washington is again paralyzed and pulling back on clean energy economic development. Deficit politics and partisanship are firmly entrenched and the raft of federal financial supports made available through the 2009 stimulus law and elsewhere is starting to expire.

No wonder it’s hard to imagine—especially if you’re sitting in the nation’s capital—how the next phase of American clean energy industry growth will be financed or its next generation of technologies and firms supported.

And yet, one source of action lies hidden in plain sight. With federal clean energy activities largely on hold, a new paper we are releasing today as part of the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation argues that U.S. states hold out tremendous promise for the continued design and implementation of smart clean energy finance solutions and economic development.

Specifically, we contend that the nearly two dozen clean energy funds (CEFs) now running in a variety of mostly northern states stand as one of the most important clean energy forces at work in the nation and offer at least one partial response to the failure of Washington to deliver a sensible clean energy development approach.

To date, over 20 states have created a varied array of these public investment vehicles to invest in clean energy pursuits with revenues often derived from small public-benefit surcharges on electric utility bills. Over the last decade, state CEFs have invested over $2.7 billion in state dollars to support renewable energy markets, counting very conservatively. Meanwhile, they have leveraged another $9.7 billion in additional federal and private sector investment, with the resulting $12 billion flowing to the deployment of over 72,000 projects in the United States ranging from solar installations on homes and businesses to wind turbines in communities to large wind farms, hydrokinetic projects in rivers, and biomass generation plants on farms.

In so doing, the funds stand well positioned—along with state economic development and other officials—to build on a pragmatic success and take up the challenge left by the current federal abdication of a role on clean energy economic development.

Stephen Lacey had a good report on this on the Climate Progress blog:

Congressional commitment to action on clean energy policy in 2012 is about as secure as Kim Kardashian’s wedding vows.

So with states once again representing the major driver for renewable energy, how can they keep the momentum going at a time when federal enthusiasm is at its lowest level in years? The key, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution, is for states to focus not just on project-level deployment, but to shift some funds toward support broader sustainable economic goals that foster the clean energy economy from the ground up.

Creating an integrated clean energy economy is about more than simply deploying renewable energy projects. It’s about putting the structures in place to support technological innovation, boost local manufacturing, and create the supply chain to support a new industry.

The authors point to states like California, Massachusetts and New York, which have set aside good chunks of money from these funds to create cleantech research hubs, business incubators, and worker training programs. These help build the industry from top to bottom and potentially keep greater amounts of economic value within a state.

A winding tower of a former coal mine is pictured against the sunset on Monday, Jan. 2, 2012 in Moers, Germany. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Meanwhile, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy reports this week:

America is thinking too small when it comes to energy efficiency, while also making the mistake of “crowding out” economically beneficial investments in energy efficiency by focusing on riskier and more expensive bids to develop new energy sources … the U.S. could either continue on its current path or cut energy consumption by the year 2050 almost 60 percent, add nearly two million net jobs in 2050, and save energy consumers as much as $400 billion per year (the equivalent of $2600 per household annually).

Also this week, the Lexington Herald-Leader had an editorial titled, “Who’ll pay coal’s dues” which explained:

A rider on an appropriations law delays a new dust-control rule that was to be published in early 2012. The rule has been in the works — off and on, depending on the party in power — since 1996. It would halve allowable dust levels in mines in response to an increase in black lung. But Congress required another study before the rule can move.

Controlling dust is mostly housekeeping. But time is money, and some mine operators won’t spend any time moving ventilation curtains to funnel fresh air to workers or slow production to unclog water sprayers that keep down dust. Companies trying to run clean mines are put at a competitive disadvantage when others are allowed to take such shortcuts.

A lot of people are trying to convince Kentucky it can’t survive without cheap coal. But coal really isn’t that cheap when all the costs are counted.

And the Marietta Times had an interesting story about a local power plant:

Norma Forrest recalled this week how her father helped build the troubled Muskingum River Power Plant back in the 1950s and 1960s.

The plant, which was at one time the largest coal-fueled power plant in the U.S., is facing an early retirement in the wake of federal air-pollution regulations that went into effect last month. However, community members and the area’s U.S. Congressman are working to delay any closures.

The plant is one of 11 American Electric Power facilities that will be retired or have units shut down by the end of 2014, according to the Columbus-based utility company.

“Everyone knows it’s coming, but no one wants to talk about it,” said Forrest, 77, of Waterford. “You don’t hear a lot of people talking about it … I think most feel like it won’t or can’t happen.

There was this story about coal’s potential problems in Indiana, and this announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about a major coal enforcement case in Illinois.

Speaking of EPA, President Obama visited the agency this week to give the employees there a little pep talk. You can watch the whole thing here:

Meanwhile, the fine folks at Mother Jones had a great story about GOP president hopeful Rick Santorum and his connections to CONSOL Energy, reporting:

Rick Santorum likes to brag about how he helped a poor local company fight big, bad government regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. “My grandfather was a coal miner,” Santorum said at a debate in New Hampshire this week. “So I contacted a local coal company from my area. I said, look, I want to join you in that fight. I want to work together with you.”

But Consol Energy, the company for which Santorum was a “consultant,” wasn’t some bare-bones local outfit—it’s one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States, and its largest shareholder is the German utility RWE. And Santorum wasn’t doing volunteer work: He was paid quite handsomely for his services, to the tune of $142,500 from 2010 to August 2011. He only ended his role with Consol when he launched his presidential bid last spring.

Santorum’s relationship with the coal company began long before his consulting gig; Santorum and Consol had a mutually profitable association during Santorum’s tenure in the Senate, too. Consol donated more than $73,800 to Santorum during his time as a legislator while simultaneously spending more than $1 million lobbying Congress on pollution limits, mine reclamation, worker health benefits, and tax policy, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the US Senate Office of Public Records.

Down in Tennessee, folks are praying for the mountains, as Anne Paine of the Tennessean reported:

Those who don’t believe that the ridges of mountains should be blasted away to extract coal in Tennessee have taken to prayer in the 40 days leading to this year’s opening of the state legislature.

Baptist, Catholic, Church of Christ, Presbyterian and Methodist church members are among those who have been focusing on the beauty and wonder of the mountains, waters and sky in advance of the upcoming legislative session.

“Our hearts care about God’s creation,” Kim McLean, pastor of the Church of Nazarene, said quietly.

Finally, Sue Sturgis at Facing South reported on a new project called Honest Appalachia:

Honest Appalachia offers a secure website and a post-office box where whistleblowers can anonymously leak documents to the public without fear of reprisal. Co-founder Jim Tobias, a University of Pennsylvania-trained journalist, came up with the idea after witnessing the power of WikiLeaks to expose wrongdoing at an international level. His vision came to life this week with the help of about a half-dozen other freelance reporters, computer programmers and transparency activists.

“We were inspired to create something similar to WikiLeaks with a more local focus,” Tobias says.