Coal Hard Facts

Climate change, shrinking ice caps, rising seas, air pollution, asthma at epidemic levels: GOOD THING Texas hasn’t built any soot-belching coal plants in the past FIFTEEN years. But with our population booming, and an energy crisis looming, The black rock is back. Let’s take a deep breath—while we still can.

When you turn on your television set, air conditioner, or dishwasher, you are doing something that is at once mechanical and moral. The mechanical part stems from your rudimentary demand for electrons: You push a button, and somewhere in Texas a huge turbine throttles up, spins a magnet inside a coil, and initiates a massive electron-bumping chain reaction that travels in light-speed waves through miles of transmission lines to reach the circuits in your house. The moral complexity lies in the choices implicit in that action. In order to power your appliances, you must summon electricity from a vast sea of energy, a largely sealed electrical grid that stops at the Texas border. Generating plants across the state, powered variously by coal, gas, nuclear fission, wind, and water, dump electrical current into this grid, and by throwing a switch you engage them all. No matter what your politics are, how much of an environmentalist or conservationist you might be, or whether you actually give a damn where your electricity comes from, you’re complicit in every energy policy decision the state of Texas has made for the past fifty years.

And there are no inconsequential energy decisions. Coal and gas are relatively cheap but pollute the air and contribute to global warming; nuclear power does not pollute the air but creates radioactive waste that will be simmering in containment pits for thousands of years; hydropower is clean but requires the damming of rivers and the destruction of habitat; wind and solar are gentle but expensive, and electrical expense is a leading cause of eviction for poor people in America.

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