Following the electrons: The consumer-power disconnect

I was down with a cold last week, which while not particularly fun in and of itself, gave me the time and enforced bed rest to finish a book I’ve been reading in fits and starts for the past couple months – “Big Coal” by Jeff Goodell.

It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand energy in the United States– its history, present and potential future –  and the short- and long-term implications of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Goodell provides a concise history of the development of electricity in the U.S., from Thomas Edison’s first power plant in New York to the creation of big power companies, which started in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, and the establishment of state and federal regulatory commissions. Samuel Insull, an English-born protégé of Edison, is the man who came up with the idea of getting U.S. consumers hooked on cheap, coal-fired power and all the electronic appliances that followed in its wake.

Insull understood, if you made power cheaper, consumers would use more of it.

“As early as 1914,” Goodell writes, “nearly every type of electric appliance known to us today could be obtained: not just electric stoves and heaters, but electric kettles, toasters, dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, mixers, potato peelers, knife grinders and vibrators (a very popular item, usually marketed as a way to relieve female ‘hysteria’).”

Underlying all this, Goodell says, is the connection between electricity and modernity and progress.

But, he continues, the problem is that Americans, and others in developed and developing countries, are disconnected from the sources of the electricity that we expect to be available on demand when we switch on a light or power up our laptops, like the one I’m typing on right now. We are, Goodell writes, clueless.

“But it is also the kind of cluelessness that power companies have spent years encouraging. If you doubt this, just try deciphering the spinning wheels on the electric meter outside your house. Power companies figured out long ago that the more they isolate consumers from the true costs and consequences of their kilowatts, the more successful the companies will be.”

Whether or not digital smart meters will reconnect us to our kilowatts remains to be seen.

“Big Coal,” which was published in 2006, focuses on tracing the electrons back to their sources in coal seams in the ground in West Virginia and other states – where mountain-top mining is destroying small communities. He looks at the public health impacts of coal-burning power plants and the political power of coal companies and the way they have shaped our country’s energy policies or lack thereof.

For Coachella Valley readers, one of the book’s most relevant and riveting sections is Goodell’s discussion of particulate matter pollution – what is called PM-10 and PM-2.5 around here. The microscopic particles that are one result of the burning of fossil fuels, PM-10 stands for particles that are 10 microns or less; PM-2.5 are 2.5 microns or less. A micron is one-millionth of a meter; 10 microns are about one-seventh the diameter of a human hair.

Beyond their small size, which makes them easy to breathe in and become lodged in a person’s lungs, what’s dangerous about particulates are the toxic substances they bind with – such as carbon, sulfur and metals.

The CoachellaValley’s PM-10 pollution, while on a downward slope, has for years exceeded state and federal safety levels.

In “Big Coal,” Goodell focuses on the work of Joel Schwartz, a former energy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency — now at Harvard — who in the 1980s and early ‘90s did ground-breaking studies on the connection between PM-10 and human illness and mortality.  In Steubenville, Ohio –- a city with high air pollution from steel mills and other industrial plants –- Schwartz documented that “deaths from pneumonia, lung disease, and heart attacks rose along with increases in particle pollution.”

More important, he found in study after study that there seems to be no safe threshold under which particle pollution stops causing illness and death.

While all this makes for engaging and occasionally enraging reading – it’s Goodell’s conclusions that really challenge the reader. While he does not doubt the reality of climate change, he also is very clear-sighted about how focusing on solving the problem doesn’t lead to constructive thought or action. He quotes at length from conversations he had in China with Dan Dudek of the Environmental Defense Fund, who is a leading expert on cap-and-trade systems:

“I’m for anything that helps us think differently about global warming,” Dudek says. “A lot of people are fixated on cutting carbon emissions, which is fine, but it also narrows the conversation. Ultimately, what matters is what happens in the atmosphere, not what happens at any particular power plant.”

And another Dudek quote:

“The point here is not to solve global warming. That’s dead-end thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to endless debate about what we should and shouldn’t do. I’ve been hearing it for twenty years. How much longer can we talk about this? I’ve been in enough rooms where people whine about the evils of the coal or oil industry, who want to sit around and debate who is worse, Big Coal or Big Oil. You know what? Who cares? It gets you nowhere. What’s important is to get people moving in the right direction. It’s about leveraging creativity and energy, about working from the bottom up. It’s about starting a revolution. We don’t need Einstein here. We need Steve Jobs.”

As gasoline climbs toward $5 a gallon, intense storms continue to ravage American towns and Republican presidential candidates escalate their assaults on renewable energy development –- the need to think about climate change differently has never been more critical and urgent.

Goodell argues that our continued dependence on fossil fuels holds back the creativity and innovation needed to grow a different, greener economy.

“It’s not that I have blind faith that technology will save us or that I think we can snap our fingers and replace all the coal plants in the world with wind turbines and solar panels,” he concludes. “I simply believe that it’s within our grasp to figure out less destructive ways to create and consume the energy we need. Ultimately, the most valuable fuel for the future is not coal or oil, but imagination and ingenuity. We have reinvented our world before. Why can’t we do it again?”