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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Authors Tackle Burning Issues of Coal's Usage

When facing the twin problems of becoming energy self-sufficient, while at the same time reducing our carbon emissions, it can easily feel like our country is trapped between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, we have arguably 250 years worth of coal buried under our soil, leading some to dub us the "Saudi Arabia of coal." On the other hand, burning coal releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, and carbon dioxide is the main villain in the global warming that scientists worldwide have been monitoring and ever more urgently reporting.

These books offer some insight into this conundrum.

Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy by William Sweet (Columbia University Press, 2006).

Coal-fired plants produce fifty percent of U.S. electricity and account for two-fifths of the country's greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As a scientist and Senior News Editor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers publication, "IEEE Spectrum," Sweet is adept at analyzing the problem. Arguing that there is "no such thing as clean coal," he supports such alternatives as conservation, wind, green design, hydrogen, and renewables. He also states, without tackling the thorny issue of nuclear waste, that modern nuclear energy plants, such as those in the European Union, are becoming an increasingly more attractive option.

Big Coal: the Dirty Secret behind America's Energy Future by Jeff Goodell (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Goodell's entertainingly written travelogue through the coal industry leads us from "the dig" to "the burn" to "the heat."

In the process, he shows us the human and environmental consequences of coal usage, including a look at the outrageous practice of mountaintop removal (and dumping into valleys) that is devastating the Appalachians.

Goodell argues that since the world has so much coal, we must insist on better ways of mining and burning it. He urges that all new plants plan on utilizing the cleaner IGCC (integrated gasification combined-cycle) technology, even though it is more expensive and still in the experimental stage. Unfortunately, this still leaves the carbon emission problem, with many doubting that proposed carbon sequestration (storage) in huge caverns underground is feasible, let alone safe.

WorldChanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century edited by Alex Steffen (Abrams, 2007).

WorldChanging.com is a three-year-old Seattle-based website that operates on the mind-boggling premise that everyone on this planet can have a decent life: "that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us."

Initially put off by the sheer size (596 pages) of this magically designed and illustrated tome, I got so caught up in all the innovative ideas that I zipped through half of it in one day. Perhaps there is hope that scientists, architects, humanitarians, businessmen, and just plain people working in small ways can make a big difference.

The Citizen Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis by Greg Pahl (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).

Pahl, who has written about energy issues for more than 25 years, reports on 2,000 community-owned electric utilities in this country, as well as a variety of community-based alternative energy initiatives around the world. He believes that people should "take back the power."

The Homeowner's Guide to Renewable Energy: Achieving Energy Independence Through Solar, Wind, Biomass and Hydropower by Dan Chiras (New Society Publishers, 2006).

Having built his own sustainable house in Colorado and developed a reputation as an expert in alternative energy, Chiras is well equipped to detail the green options that individuals have when building and retrofitting their homes.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.