GUEST OPINION: Fueling the future

By on July 28, 2015

It’s time to embrace a new energy trajectory in the Cowboy State

This piece is part one in a two-part series. The second part runs August 12, one day before a public meeting co-hosted by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Gov. Matt Mead’s Office regarding the development of Wyoming’s next energy strategy. This meeting is Aug. 13, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Ordway Auditorium at Teton County Library.

Credit: Dustin Bleizeffer/wyofile

Credit: Dustin Bleizeffer/wyofile

I remember the moment 20 years ago, standing in the courtyard of my Uncle Michael’s Johannesburg, South Africa, home under the hazy Highveld sunshine wondering why the air was so disgusting. It was so thick with coal dust I swear you could have grabbed a chunk of it, balled it up and thrown a “coal ball.” My eyes stung so badly I couldn’t even wear my contacts. And this was two decades after South Africa launched major initiatives to reduce air pollution from the burning of coal. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized that my family was partly responsible for this sickening air.

Just over 100 years ago my grandfather, Morris Kotkin, emigrated from Western Russia to South Africa looking for a better life. When he arrived, he took a job doing menial office work for a coal distribution company. In a classic bootstraps story, he worked his way up and eventually ran a company that transported coal across South Africa. South Africa has a lot of coal, and back then it powered everything – from heaters and stoves in people’s homes to the nation’s electrical grid.

My Uncle Michael took over the family coal distribution business when Morris died in 1962 and was running it at the moment I stood in his courtyard wondering about the repulsive air. I began to realize the nauseating air really wasn’t Michael’s fault. If he didn’t ship the coal across South Africa, someone else would. He was simply trapped in a society addicted to fossil fuels. But how did this addiction begin? To answer this question, we need to understand energy.

What is energy exactly? Energy is the capacity to do work. The more energy you have, the more work you can do. Energy creates order out of disorder and complexity out of simplicity. Without energy, nothing happens. But it’s not quite that simple, what really matters isn’t how much energy you have; it’s how much controllable concentrated energy you have.

Controllable concentrated energy can do a lot of useful work. For instance, one gallon of gas has the equivalent energy of about 350 to 500 hours of human labor. That’s a lot of work. This is why concentrated energy is the lifeblood of any economy. The more concentrated energy an economy has, the more work it can do and the more complex it can become.

We’ve seen this play out over the past six generations of human history. Up until the late 19th century most Americans were farmers. Ninety percent. That’s pretty much how it was all over the world. We were limited by the amount of sunlight that hit the earth every day and patiently grew our planted crops. Those societies with a surplus of food became more complex as people were freed from farming to do other things. But sunlight is an incredibly diffuse source of energy that’s hard to control (until recent improvements in renewable energy technology), so previous societies never were able to become that complex. But humans found something so powerful it would completely transform the world. What is it? Ancient sunlight.

In 1859 (eight years after my wife’s great, great grandfather was born), Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Penn. Over hundreds of millions of years the earth had condensed the energy of the sun in the form of dead plants, dinosaurs and other organic material and transformed it into unbelievably dense forms of usable concentrated energy – oil, coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels. Ancient sunlight, gift wrapped by the earth and ready for us to put to work. Fossil fuels can do a lot of work. Remember, one gallon of gas has the equivalent energy of hundreds of hours of human labor.   

Since South Africa has a lot of coal, people there decided to put it to work building their economy. People across the world made the same decision and we, as a global society, have made a collective choice to base our entire economic system – our entire way of life – on the burning of ancient sunlight.

This is especially true here in Wyoming, where, like South Africa, we have a lot of coal. Wyoming produces 40 percent of the coal used to generate electricity in America. The tax revenues from coal and other fossil fuels pay for approximately 70 percent of operating our state’s government.

Like most addictions, fossil fuels made us feel good – at first. Fossil fuels have allowed us to expand the human endeavor in ways never before thought possible and vastly improve the lives of billions. Yet like most addictions, the good feelings came with consequences and, in the case of fossil fuels, the consequences are significantly worse than disgusting air – they threaten to undermine the very foundation of our society.

Consequences like climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which the U.S. Department of Defense recently warned will lead to “rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events [that] will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” Climate change “will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.” While referring to climate change as a “threat multiplier” that can undermine fragile governments, creating “an avenue for extremist ideologies and conditions that foster terrorism.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

“All is not lost,” Pope Francis said, in his recent encyclical regarding climate change. “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

Right now, Wyoming has an opportunity to break its addiction to fossil fuels and choose what is good through the development of the next energy strategy. Instead of doubling down and clinging desperately to the dirty energy economy of the past, we can blaze a trail toward the clean energy economy of the future. PJH

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

About Craig Benjamin

Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

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