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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Is the Future Ahead of, or Behind, the US?

Two days after Christmas and the front page of the New York Times is the gift that just keeps giving.

In Germany, The Times reports, they are building houses that remain warm simply via passive solar, massive insulation (and heat exchangers, for fresh air) and retaining the heat generated by people and appliances. According to the article, these houses generate all the heat and hot water the occupants need, using about the same energy as a hair dryer. Cost of building isn’t much above standard construction, a premium of between five and seven percent. The European Union (those brazen communist bureaucrats!) is considering making new buildings meet the same passive energy savings standards by 2011.

In the US meanwhile, we get two front page pointers to stories further on which focus on rather more primitive power production issues: one is about a return to heating homes using coal. Cheaper, more plentiful, domestically produced at a more stable price than oil, coal for home heating was up 9% in 2007 and another 10% in the first eight months of 2008. What’s not to like?

In answer to that question—putting aside that pesky global climate change and the spewing of toxic chemicals and fine particulates into the air—there’s another story further on: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has reported the largest coal ash spill in US history. Coal ash sludge, containing thallium and lead, has burst out of a holding pond at a coal fired power plant on the Emory River, about forty miles west of Knoxville, contaminating the river and engulfing nearby roads and railroad lines. Initial reports had the amount in the neighborhood of 1.7 million cubic yards; the update better than triples this to 5.4 million—particularly interesting given that the TVA had previously reported the total contents of the waste pond to be less than half that amount.

Hard to read this little trifecta of articles and not come away thinking that some societies are moving forward, into the post-fossil fuel future. . . while others are sliding (or actively swimming) backward, into the toxic muck of 19th century technology.

Hard not to ask: WHY???

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