Staff editorials


The 2011 Powering a Nation staff has spent the last 10 weeks developing a project that shows the complexities of our relationship with coal. We hope that you will see how coal powers our lives and get a sense of what that means for people on different sides of the issue.


Ten weeks of reporting and research have resulted in the UNC News21 team understanding U.S. energy needs to undergo sea change. Industry, government and consumers must redefine their roles, actions and relationships with one another to deliver us from the fossil fuel era.

Love in the time of blasting


This is the scene when the stage lights, generated by coal-fired electricity, dim in New York City's neon theater district:

We are inside the home of Marie and Hovie, a young couple living in the mountain holler of Eagle Creek. With their family's 150-year-old homestead threatened by a planned strip-mining operation, Hovie, a strip-miner himself, is determined to move his pregnant wife out of the country. As the last remaining member on her family's ancestral property, Marie is torn by their agonizing fate and the dangerous health conditions in the mining area. When she speaks of her dream to raise their child—the 8th generation of her family to be born in Eagle Creek—Hovie divulges a deeply held secret.

"I'm sorry, baby, but the times have changed," he says, holding his wife by the shoulders. "We have no idea how much lead or arsenic has been in our water. What are we going to put in the baby's bottle? I'll tell you the truth. I know those coal slurry ponds leak. I built them."

It's a pivotal moment in the play, "Love in the Time of Blasting," a multimedia theater production loosely adapted from my memoir/history, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.

After a ten-year literary odyssey to research and write an expose on the secret history of coal mining in the American heartland, the next step of taking the page to the stage was one of the hardest--and most exhilarating--acts in my literary career.

Reckoning at Eagle Creek is a family saga deeply rooted in the great American pastoral, an homage to the resiliency of my grandfather, a coal miner, and our family's centuries-old woodlands culture. After my family's 150-year-old homestead was strip-mined into oblivion in one of the most diverse forests and historic communities in the American heartland, I set out to examine the overlooked human and environmental costs of our nation's dirty energy policy over the past two centuries.

Strip-mining, as I learned in Eagle Creek, doesn't only strip the land; it strips our historical memory. As a cultural history, the book digs deep into the tangled roots of the coal industry beginning with the policies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. It chronicles the removal of Native Americans, the hidden story of legally sanctioned black slavery in the land of Lincoln, and the epic mining wars for union recognition and workplace safety. It uncovers the devastating environmental consequences of industrial strip-mining.

As I began to adapt the history pages to the stage, the characters inevitably took on their own lives. A young couple faced with the demise of their home place—their future and their past—emerged at center stage of the great tragedy of strip-mining, mountaintop removal and reckless coal-mining disasters still playing out across the coalfields in 24 states in our country today.

In the end, I realized the play, like my memoir, was ultimately a love story—love for your family, love for the land and what you have to do to hold onto and defend your love.

Such a love story transcends the confines of the page or stage, of course. The rumble of mining explosives sounds far beyond the theatre walls for me. As the coal-fired lights rise in theaters across the country, the real tragedy continues in my southern Illinois coalfields and coal mining communities in Appalachia and the West.

And this is a tragedy that must end.


Things of intrinsic worth


Wallace McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Mont. He has been a part of nearly every National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a recipient of the Montana Governor's Award for the Arts and has served on the National Council of the Arts.


Crawling coal miner


I see that crawling coal miner everywhere.

I see him in black and white, and even pink. He's on the backs and side windows of countless cars and pickup trucks in the form of decals and bumper stickers. I see him on shirts and ball caps. I've seen him on a webpage layout for a social network.

I see him every day on my own skin, in coal-black ink over the veins of my inner right forearm. Every time I glance at my arm, every time I shower, put on makeup or brush my hair in the mirror, I see him crawling, always crawling, reminding me of my roots, of the coal that has been in my blood for generations.

He is there to treasure my dad and my brother, to honor those who have spent their lives digging coal to provide for their families and keep the lights on. He is there to memorialize the 29 wonderful and dedicated men who died at the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, a dreadful day that is etched in my mind and heart as surely as the crawling coal miner is etched on my body.


Witnessing the "subversion of democracy of West Virginia"


As a resident of the Coal River Valley in Raleigh County, West Virginia, I sat in a meeting with a handful of Appalachian Ambassadors at Congressman Nick Joe Rahall’s office on July 13, 2011 in Washington, DC.  It was stunning to see the 18th-term Congressman stare in silence -- his only real reply -- as Bo Webb, Maria Gunnoe and Vernon Haltom described the horror and the heartbreak of living with the long-term effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. Armed with the latest Hendryx report,  which cites the connection between increased chance of birth defects in newborns with living near mountaintop removal operations, these Power-Hillbillies put this latest evidence in front of a distracted Rahall and announced their demand for an immediate moratorium on mountaintop removal. Rahall had nothing to say other than trying to pass the buck, first to, Alpha Natural Resources (Massey Energy's new name), then Office of Surface Mining (OSM). What we witnessed in Representative Nick Joe Rahall's office is what Bobby Kennedy Jr calls the “subversion of democracy in the state of West Virginia,” and we stared back in silence, in anticipation, as Rep. Rahall, stone dead in the eyes, the dome of the Capitol filling the large window behind him, said nothing to us West Virginians demanding to be represented.


Why should I care about electricity?


Imagine a world without electricity: no computers or cell phones to stay in touch with your workplace and no television or video games for your kids. We can’t shop online, pay our bills, catch up on the news or even read a book on one of our electronic devices. Once the sun goes down, we retreat to our homes, lit by dim kerosene lamps or fireplaces. Productivity stops, and we seemingly return to the dark ages.

Electricity – produced from fossil, nuclear or renewable resources – is the backbone of a prosperous society. As electricity use increases, so does gross domestic product, a fundamental measure of economic health and prosperity. That is why developing countries such as China and India are building new power plants on a massive scale to ensure that there is sufficient electricity to continue their explosive economic growth for the foreseeable future.

Here in the United States, our economy is fueled by a mature power industry that has produced reliable and affordable electricity for generations. However, many of our existing power plants will face issues of aging, tighter limits on air and water emissions and potential new greenhouse gas controls. At the same time, we are integrating new, “smarter” elements into our electricity grid (such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) and adding variable renewable energy resources like wind and solar into our energy mix. These actions will challenge us to maintain the reliability and affordability we have all come to depend upon to drive our economy, power our industries and support our standard of living.


Liberated energy: How distributed generation can help us


Technology has often had a liberating effect on humankind, but sometimes the social benefits seem to be greatest when the technology itself is liberated. For example, the rise of personal computers drove computing toward a more human scale, enabling millions of people to own machines of their own and freeing them from the tightly controlled confines that once required users to be fluent in a specialized programming language.

Today, we are faced with an opportunity to do the same with America’s electric infrastructure. In power, the status quo is one of centralization. For example, a report by the State of California’s Energy Commission found that the state provided for just 2.5 percent of its 2004 power demands with “distributed” generating assets — assets located close enough to a load that they did not require their output to be transmitted over high-voltage power lines. Under such circumstances, ordinary people have little opportunity to interact with the systems that make our electricity. This makes it hard for us to experience the satisfaction and educational benefits that come with controlling one’s own electricity supply, and harder still to comprehend the sobering amounts of fossil fuel consumed and greenhouse gas pollution emitted by the facilities that power our lives.


The energy challenge: act today, shape tomorrow


My kids are either cursed or blessed. Yours too. And we need to make sure that the blessing wins out.
It is common for us to turn to our elders and older authorities to look for judgment of our actions, and therefore for guidance, as we pick through the field of choices before us. But our descendents, the future, will judge us. Through them, we can attempt to "look back" at our lives today with a fresh viewpoint to understand our current predicaments. Through them we can access a moral compass that takes into account a larger reality than our current day-to-day lives. And to them we must answer.

Energy issues often confront us as part of the daily troubles of our lives: high utility bills; reliable energy supplies and rolling blackouts; appropriate policies to help economic development and job creation; political effects of our reliance on global oil supplies. Yet we must consider more than our daily troubles to be judged worthy by our descendents.


Re-powering our nation: Where do we start?

More than 20 years ago, Al Gore and I helped organize the first-ever hearing in the Senate on the science of climate change. Twenty-two years later, we are still fighting to make people and policymakers feel the urgency of the issue.

Fortunately, we are not alone.

Today, America’s leadership—in the White House and in Congress—is more willing and better positioned than ever before to take action. In fact, green legislation signed by President Obama earlier this year was the kind of bold and visionary first step necessary to ward off a climate catastrophe.

The president’s package will speed up the green revolution, reordering just how we will need to power America in the near future and, in the process, create millions of green jobs to replace those lost in the current financial crisis.

The climate change and energy security bill that we will present to the Senate, building on the Waxman-Markey bill, will also jumpstart our economy, protect consumers, stop the ravages of unchecked global climate change, and ensure that America—not China or India—will be the leading economic power in this century.

The resources from heaven

mug_binghamNormally I don’t respond to questionable statements by politicians, but when Sarah Palin, in her recent article published in The Washington Post, informed her readers that “God created resources for energy right under our feet,” I had a second read and a knee-jerk response. What Palin’s article did was exemplify the vast amount of misinformation that is circulating. It is to those skeptics who lack the facts or don’t want them that I am writing.

It is true that we have been given natural resources for our use, but never has it been stated by God or anyone else that these resources are meant to be abused or to abuse others. I find it insulting to God that we blast off the tops of God’s beautiful mountains to extract coal, the dirtiest of energy sources ever provided. I find it appalling and actually wonder what Jesus would say to the idea of  encouraging roads, trucks and equipment to enter in and destroy pristine areas of the Alaska wilderness seeking oil. Jesus was a healer, not one to harm anything, even the migration path of caribou. Knowing there are alternatives to these destructive means of finding energy, are those methods moral?


How should we be powering our nation?

mug_rogersWe have two aspirations for our company and our nation that guide our planning and serve as a bridge to the low-carbon future we know is coming:

•    Modernize and decarbonize our generation fleet, and
•    Help make the communities we serve the most energy efficient in the world.

These aspirations are grounded in our commitment to provide our customers with affordable, reliable and clean energy, 24/7.

To achieve these aspirations, we are using a balanced approach that uses the five available fuels to generate electricity: coal, nuclear, natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency. There is no perfect fuel—each has pluses and minuses, and each one needs new technology development. But to keep energy prices affordable, our economy competitive, and to protect the environment, we must keep all five fuels in our energy mix for our nation to cross the bridge to a carbon-constrained world.

Confronting the new energy realities together

mug_johnsonA casual drive through an established North Carolina neighborhood or down a former country highway presents not only a clear picture of the state’s rapid growth, but also a vivid snapshot of the dramatic changes in our energy use over the last three decades.

Since the mid-1970s, the number of homes and businesses served by Progress Energy Carolinas has doubled, and the average household’s energy consumption has increased by 46 percent. Our world has become much more aware of global climate issues and the factors that affect climate change. In the United States, we recognize the growing value of energy security, as well as fuel and technology diversity. We also know that pursuing these and other priorities will drive up energy prices in the years ahead.

These are the new energy realities that we must confront together. Policymakers, regulators and customers need to understand what’s at stake and work together on a common approach.

How we should be powering our nation

mug_barrieMy concerns about energy began when I was a young boy growing up in southern California during the 1970s. At the time, Americans were forced to pay attention to the volatility of energy supplies when an oil embargo caused shortages and price spikes.

I remember riding around with my dad, looking for the gas stations with the shortest lines. We filled up an extra gas can just in case, and we put locking caps on our gas tank to prevent fuel thieves from siphoning our gasoline in the middle of the night. Few houses on our neighborhood streets put up lights during the holiday season. Energy conservation was part of our national culture.

The conservation ethic stuck with me, even as the behaviors, lifestyles and choices of the average American went in the opposite direction during the 1980s and '90s.

The prevailing attitudes seemed to say it’s cool to consume and conservation is a sign of weakness. Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy policy speech in 2001 called for a radical increase and expansion of energy production and infrastructure in America and disregarded energy conservation as nothing more than a sign of “good personal virtue.”

Why we should care about energy

Our use of energy over the past 100 years has transformed our global economy and made our lives more comfortable and productive. We have become better at extracting energy resources and more efficient in using that energy. As a general rule, we have flourished.

But we have lost sight of the basic cyclical requirements of living on a planet. Just as though we live on a spaceship, we have to be cautious in how we use and reuse our supplies. We only have one planet, and presently we are using the resources as if there is an extra planet in the closet. I looked and it’s not there!

Nature is a strict and wonderful teacher, yet many of us are not listening or learning. In 1993, Paul Hawken wrote, “every day, the worldwide economy burns an amount of energy the planet required 10,000 days (27 years) to create.” What are we thinking?

It is imperative for our survival that we not only realize that we live on a planet, but that we start acting like we live on a planet. As with our recent economic lessons, we are quickly moving toward a potentially painful environmental lesson. 

Why I care about energy

mug_coxA confession: I did not always care about energy.

When I joined the environmental movement, I was passionate about wilderness and national forests. When friends told me they were working on “energy,” my eyes glazed over. I imagined utility commission hearings about residential electricity rates and energy-efficiency standards… boring, I thought.

In 2005, I joined thousands of environmental leaders in San Francisco for a summit on the future of environmentalism, sponsored by the Sierra Club. There, it dawned on me that everything I cared about—forests, wildlife and biodiversity, the health of communities, and more—is linked to energy. Specifically, I realized the effects on the planet’s climate of our consumption of fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas.

With the warming of global temperatures, coral reefs were dying, tropical diseases were migrating, scientists were warning of a sixth “Great Extinction,” severe droughts were occurring in the U.S. southwest, and other parts of the world, and more.


How should we be powering our nation?

mug_lechnerFor most of the last century, our electrical grids were a symbol of progress. The inexpensive, abundant power they brought changed the way the world worked–filling homes, streets, businesses, towns and cities with energy.

But today's electrical grids reflect a time when energy was cheap, their impact on the natural environment wasn't a priority, and consumers weren't even part of the equation.

Consider what we are facing today: Cities consume 75 percent of the world's energy and emit more than 80 percent of the world's carbon dioxide; nearly 400 billion kilowatt-hours are wasted each year because of insufficient power-usage information.

As a result of inefficiencies in the system, the world's creation and distribution of electric power is now incredibly wasteful. With little or no intelligence to balance loads or monitor power flows, enough electricity is lost annually to power India, Germany and Canada.

Reflections on energy and the 21st century human condition

mug_rosenblumPARIS, FRANCE – About to head home to August in Arizona, I keep mulling over the 21st century human condition: Are we out of our flipping minds?

When temperatures approach 110 degrees, you can cook a frozen pizza on a car hood in a few minutes flat, and in our new climate, 110 might soon be on the cool side.

Scripps scientists tell us there is a better-than-even chance that in a few years Lake Mead will be too low to run the Hoover Dam generators that power much of Arizona.

The Colorado River is already a pathetic trickle as it passes Yuma. Serious people in nine states have trouble believing how it can be so ridiculously oversubscribed.

Mexico, deprived of the water it needs, slips further into drug violence and crime, fed partly by simple desperation.