In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day. We dont use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wire whenever we flip on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal- fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in America. About half the electricity we consume comes from coalwe burn more than a billion tons of it a year, usually in big, aging power plants that churn out amazing quantities of power, profit, and pollution. In fact, electric power generation is one of the largest and most capital-intensive industries in the country, with revenues of more than $260 billion in 2004. And the rise of the Interneta global network of electronshas only increased the industrys power and influence. We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks.
This was not how things were supposed to go in America. Coal was supposed to be the engine of the industrial revolution, not the Internet revolution. It once powered our steamships and trains; it forged the steel that won the wars and shaped our cars and skyscrapers and airplanes. It kept pioneers warm on the prairie and built fortunes for robber barons such as Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Without coal, the world as we know it today would be impossible to imagine. There should be monuments to coal in every big city, giant statues of Pennsylvania anthracite and West Virginia bituminous. It is literally the rock that built America.
But weve been hooked on coal for almost 150 years now, and like a Bowery junkie, we keep telling ourselves its time to come clean, without ever actually doing it. We stopped burning coal in our homes in the 1930s, in locomotives in the 1940s, and by the 1950s it seemed that coal was on its way out for electricity generation, too. Nuclear power was the great dream of the postWorld War II era, but the near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 put an end to that. Then natural gas overtook coal as the fuel of choice. If coal was our industrial smack, natural gas was our methadone: it was clean, easy to transport, and nearly as cheap as coal. Virtually every power plant built in America between 1975 and 2002 was gas- fired. Almost everybody in the energy world presumed that the natural gas era would soon give way to even cleaner sources of power generationwind, solar, biofuels, hydrogen, perhaps someday solar panels on the moon. As for the old coal plants, they would be dismantled, repowered, or left to rust in the fields.
But like many revolutions, this one hasnt progressed quite as planned.
Energy-wise, the fundamental problem in the world today is that the earths reserves of fossil fuels are finite but our appetite for them is not. The issue is not simply that there are more people in the world, consuming more fossil fuels, but that as economies grow and people in developing nations are lifted out of poverty, they buy cars and refrigerators and develop an appetite for gas, oil, and coal. Between 1950 and 2000, as the world population grew by roughly 140 percent, fossil fuel consumption increased by almost 400 percent. By 2030, the worlds demand for energy is projected to more than double, with most of that energy coming from fossil fuels.
Of course, every barrel of oil we pump out of the ground, every cubic foot of natural gas we consume, and every ton of coal we burn further depletes reserves. For a while, our day of reckoning was put off by the fact that technological innovation outpaced consumption: the more fossil fuels we burned, the better we became at finding more, lulling us into a false belief that the worlds reserves of fossil fuels are eternal. But that delusion cant last forever. In fact, there are increasing signs that it wont last much longer.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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