The coal-fired power plant debate is back. Shallow levels
of black-and-white reasoning are rampant on both sides
and demonstrate that our level of science education has
across the campus at Yangzhou University in China last
year, I admired the many electric bicycles that were silently
zipping past us. My host responded that they were not
that much better than the gasoline-powered motorbikes
that have been banned in some Chinese cities. Bicycle
batteries have a limited life and are very toxic-a problem
to discard or recycle. The whole country was having this
debate. Everyone in China seemed to know that it was not
a black-and-white oil-versus-electricity issue. Because
China is so crowded, the Chinese are very concerned about
pollution. They are also very sensitive to the effects
that policy will have on the full range of people, poor-to-rich.
students receive four times more science coursework than
our students. They know that long-lasting batteries with
cadmium and lithium are very toxic. That electrical resistance
prevents efficient transmission of electricity over long
distances at low voltages. That both wind and solar generation
must be close to the consumer. And that peak demand is
often on a hot afternoon with no wind.
know that no energy decision is going to be black-and-white.
They weigh the costs, but they have the courage to act.
Their Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric
dam, has 26 generators producing a total of 18,200 clean
megawatts, equal to the power of 15 of the largest nuclear-power
similar to the U.S., has huge reserves of coal. They have
begun 30 large scale Coal-to-Liquid (Fischer-Tropsch process)
projects. This converts coal to methanol and makes it
possible to sequester carbon dioxide. These are production
plants. China is committed to methanol being ten percent
of their automotive fuel in 2011-2013. China is also the
world's major supplier of photovoltaic cells, but they
know that solar and wind can only be a small part of the
is barely in the research stage in the United States.
And we have yet to begin building any new nuclear plants.
Our public lacks depth in science knowledge. We dither.
We polarize. Half of us revel in the obnoxiously sarcastic
there's-no-such-thing-as-clean-coal commercials. And half
of us ignore the rising carbon dioxide levels.
government may be communist, but they are compassionate
communists. They know their poorest citizens cannot afford
to pay two to four times more for energy. We apparently
has not been that many years ago that the cost of natural
gas in many districts in Kansas increased dramatically
in a few months. Folks with $150 monthly fuel bills found
themselves having to pay over $500. Manipulations by companies
like Enron drove prices up based on what "the market
would bear." If the rich can be forced to pay high
prices, you can make much more money and forget the poor
folks. It was legalized extortion. How soon we forget
that many families with children felt the cold nights
is a term-"affluent environmentalism"-that describes
how wealthier people can buy a good conscience. Buy a
Prius and sleep good at night. And blame others for not
following your path. But poor folks don't have the extra
thousands to buy a Prius. With coal alternatives also
costing from 50 to 400 percent more, maybe you can pay
that much more to stay warm. But how will they?
children need to go to school to learn much more science
so they can make better environmental decisions than we
are making. But they can't learn in school, if they were
awake all night shivering in the cold.
Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.