Sunday, June 01, 2008

Imagining a future for eastern Kentucky

The earth's atmosphere is changing. Whether it is the result of human activity or not, the earth is becoming something different than that to which we in modern industrial societies have become accustomed.

The overall average temperature of the earth’s surface is warming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change page:
  • There is a high level of confidence that the global average temperature during the last few decades was warmer than any comparable period during the last 400 years.

  • Present evidence suggests that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than any period of comparable length since A.D. 900.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) summarizes climate change to date:
  • On the global average, the surface air temperature of the Earth has increased by about 1.0 ± 0.4°F (0.6 ± 0.2°C) since the late 19th century.
  • The decade of the 1990s was very likely the warmest decade in the instrumental record, which dates back to 1861.
  • On average, between 1950 and 1993, nighttime daily minimum air temperatures over land increased by about 0.2°C per decade. This has lengthened the freeze-free season in many mid- and high latitude regions.
  • It is very likely that precipitation has increased by 0.5 to 1.0% per decade in the 20th century over most mid- and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere continents, and it is likely that rainfall has increased by 0.2 to 0.3% per decade over the tropical land areas. It is also likely that rainfall has decreased over much of the Northern Hemisphere subtropical (10°N to 30°N) lands areas during the 20th century by about 0.3% per decade.
  • Global sea level has risen by between 4 and 8 inches (0.1 and 0.2 meters) over the past 100 years, and much of the increase is thought to be related to the rising global average temperature.

So warming already has occurred and more is likely to occur in the future. How much additional warming will occur, depends at least in part upon the extent to which today’s societies take steps to reduce green house gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane. A warmer climate will likely mean: more extreme weather events, more floods and more droughts, weather patterns that are different from the past (and thus less predictable); changes in the timing of seasons, with impacts on crop yields, growing seasons, the types of crops that can be grown and where they can be grown; warmer temperatures will affect upon species migrations and distributions, including pests populations; rising sea levels with changing coast lines, coastal flooding; and many other impacts.

However, climate change is not the only environmental change affecting modern societies. The modern industrial societies, especially in the past 100 years, are heavily dependent upon petroleum as a resource for both energy and for materials. Petroleum is a finite resource, a fixed quantity that is not increasing. Various estimates have been made for the point in time when the production of petroleum will begin to decline (because supplies are declining and becoming more expensive to extract). The most optimistic projections suggest we have 30 years until production of petroleum peaks and then begins to decline. Other estimates suggest that the peak of production has already happened, or is occurring now. Examining the data from the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. government, world petroleum output has held fairly steady since January 2005 moving slightly up and down between 84,000,000 barrels per day and 86,000,000 barrels per day despite increasing world demand for oil; suggesting at the very least a slowing down of production, if not yet a leveling off or decline.

Change will come to the world and eastern Kentucky in particular, in one form or another. The question is what kind of change and how much control the residents will have over that change. What quality of life will result from those changes? Will eastern Kentucky become a barren “Marscape” wrecked by strip-mining and mountain top removal gone mad? Will the political leadership of Kentucky continue to chase the chimera of coal-to-liquid fuels; ignoring the impact that will have on both world wide atmospheric carbon dioxide, global temperatures and the local destruction of forests and streams in eastern Kentucky and the water supply for urban Kentucky? Will eastern Kentucky communities continued to be a land of poor roads, high poverty, low education, high obesity, diabetes and asthma?

I have a fantasy about what life in eastern Kentucky could be like within the next decade, if steps are taken immediately to turn away from our current path of destructive strip-mining, coal generated electricity, and obstinate clinging to gas guzzling SUV’s and pickup trucks. I see the possibility for positive change that will create beautiful, livable communities in rural eastern Kentucky.

My fantasy begins with a total ban on surface coal mining. The existing, ugly, barren mountain tops and hillsides of recent strip mine activity would become the location for large wind turbines. Additional wind turbines would be located at the top of forested mountain ridges that have been saved from the disruption of strip-mining. Unlike strip-mining, wind turbines could be located with little disruption of the surface, and their operation would be consistent with maintaining forest habitat for wild animals, and human activities of hunting, hiking, etc. Although not as consistently windy as some areas of the U.S., there is sufficient wind, especially on the tops of ridges, like Pine Mountain, to generate substantially more electricity over a far longer time frame, than any coal that might be minded from the same ridges and mountain tops.

In my fantasy future, all older homes will be improved with insulation and weather sealing, and new homes will be built with higher levels of insulation than currently is recommended. All new homes will be sited for both passive and active solar, and fitted with new solar films on their rooftops. Both older homes and new homes will all have solar water heating installed. Between wind turbines and dispersed solar thermal and electric power, nearly all the power needs of eastern Kentucky homes will be provided through renewable resources rather than coal fired generation as they are now.

With coal mining halted, and coal trucks no longer dominating Kentucky’s roads, roads can be better adapted for walking and bicycling paths for localized travel. Most residents will do their primary travel by public/mass transportation. The existing electricity distribution poles and lines, which for the most part already follow the course of the roads, will be fitted with electric lines above the roads, to provide power to fleet of electric trolley/buses to provide mass transportation. Electric motor trolley buses, with conventional wheels and tires to not require rails, can use existing roadways, obtaining electric power from overhead electric lines. Trolley routes will follow all the main roads through the rural counties.

Where the shorter roads up into hollers connect to the main road, there will be business/community centers that will provide safe covered place to wait for trolleys, covered storage for bicycles ridden by commuters from their homes to the trolley stop, mail services, convenience store type shopping, and space for seating, eating, and visiting for community members. From April through October, several days a week, community members with room for gardens can sell their produce at this central gather area. Some enterprising local residents may using solar and wind energy to warm greenhouses that would provide tomatoes and other fresh vegetables during the winter months as well.

Groups of neighbors or family members will go in together on shared autos and pickups that will be plug-in hybrids that will depend almost entirely on electricity generated from renewable resources for local travel, and have high mileage adjustable cylinder/adjustable power (just recently developed and available to consumers on some vehicles such as trucks). Private vehicles will be used rarely; public transportation will be used for routine commutes to work, school and shopping. When private autos/trucks are used, they will generally be used by groups – carpools, group shopping expeditions.

The cooperative community spirit already exists in eastern Kentucky. I believe that this spirit can and will be applied to solving the new challenges we face. However, at the state and federal level, our government decision-makers need to stop propping up coal mining and coal produced electricity, with huge tax breaks, lack of enforcement of safety and environmental regulations, and subsidies for speculative projects like Peabody’s coal-to-liquid fuels plant. If coal mining and coal burning electricity generation had to pay their way just like any other industry, and if genuine enforcement of existing laws (like coal truck weight limits) occurred, coal would not seem so “cheap” and alternatives like wind and solar would become genuinely competitive.


lamarguerite said...

Sue, thanks for stopping by La Marguerite. I appreciated your comment. This is a great post. I especially like the part where you share your vision for the future of your place. It reminded me of post I wrote a short while ago about
I like the fact that you are getting down to local specifics.

Martin Richards said...

I like your vision Sue.

Anonymous said...

Having just returned from a visit to eastern Kentucky, Pike County in particular, the place of my birth, I find your vision to be a fantasy. You did not address the lack of an economic environment if the coal fields are taken away. These people are already living in poverty, with an average annual income of $40,000. How can they sustain themselves without meaningful jobs? True, I don't believe coal mining is the answer because it seems the "haves" get all the money. But there has to be an alternative to your lovely idea of real life.