Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Kentucky's climate change discussion can provide example for advancing the global warming debate

In an excellent example of moving a global discussion to a local level, a Kentucky forum on climate change yesterday was marked by repeated warnings that cheap, coal-fired electricity is becoming a thing of the past, and Kentuckians must do their part to prepare for rising electricity costs. Much the same is true for much of rural America, especially customer-members of rural electric cooperatives, which get 80 percent of their juice from coal.

"Electricity prices will go up without [carbon-dioxide emissions] regulation," said Justin Maxson of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, based in Berea, Ky. "But they will go up even more with regulation." Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council said climate change could not only cause energy costs to rise, but also cause the coal industry to wither and Kentucky's poor to wind up in even more dire economic straits.

However, Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., which convened the forum, presented a different scenario in which Kentucky could "land in a sort of economic catbird seat as a place with limited climate change, and could benefit if it enhances education and infrastructure to gain businesses that other states lose," Cheryl Truman of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. (Read more)

Under either scenario, the day's common theme was that Kentucky's traditionally cheap coal-generated electricity rates are going to increase, and the only question is by how much. FitzGerald and John P. Malloy, E.On-U.S. vice president of energy delivery, both spoke of the need for demand-side changes in electricity consumption. While the future of renewables and carbon-capture and sequestration technology for coal-fired power plants may or may not alter the supply-side of electricity consumption, both men said Kentuckians will need to abandon the wasteful consumption that has eliminated much of the state's cheap electricity advantage. Because the state gets 91 percent of its electricity from coal, it has some of the nation's lowest electric rates, but its average bills are only a bit below the national median.

"The good news is that we waste a lot of electricity now because it’s cheap, and higher prices will provide more incentives for conservation and developing alternative energy," Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen writes. "That will reduce the need for costly new power plants and help Kentucky transition away from coal as reserves are depleted." Eblen points out that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce was discussing many of the same issues just down the hall from the climate conference. A state senator joked with him during a break that the two groups were looking at the issues from different perceptions as well as different rooms.

Local conversations like the Kentucky climate forum can help advance the global warming debate. Maxson pointed out that rural people stand to benefit from a cap-and-trade system in which they would be paid for healthy stewardship of farms and forests. Eblen's thesis that the "underlying truth was clear to everyone: change is here, and Kentucky must deal with it," can be applied to local communities and states across the country.

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