On a clear day, a phenomenon that for many people occurs less and less frequently now, you not only hear the endless warning whistles of the diesel-electric engines but you can actually watch the coal trains that rumble by day and night, twenty-four/seven past towns, cities, farms and fields as they transport countless tons of strip-mined coal from the parched steppes of Wyoming and other distant locations to gigantic holding yards at power plants in places like Texas and Georgia.
What most of us never see, perhaps because we don’t really want to, is the process by which that mile and a half long load of former living matter, the product of ancient sunlight rendered toxic over geologic time, is skillfully dumped by powerful hydraulic lifts in a matter of minutes into a holding yard approaching the size of the island of Manhattan and then efficiently incinerated in roughly eight hours, making room for the next delivery, which, though only hours behind, is still a state or two away, but right on schedule.
The people who consume the cheap electricity being generated there will surely see the light it delivers at the flick of a switch, the entertainment and information it enables them to access at the touch of a remote, and the way it makes their appliances come to “life”. They apparently don’t notice the empty hopper cars leaving trails of black dust as they head back to the coal fields for another load, and if they do see the mountainous piles of ash and the choking, blinding torrents belching from the smokestacks they seem to have learned to ignore them.
They also seem to be unaware that each kilowatt of electricity generated in this manner consumes approximately thirty gallons of fresh water in the process, all this at a time when huge regions of the country remain under severe drought conditions. Are we oblivious or do we simply put our own convenience and self interest ahead of every other consideration?
Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a landmark case challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from “stationary sources”, like power plants and factories. The case, American Chemistry Council (ACC), et al, v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will be briefed and argued through the fall and winter and a decision is expected in late spring 2014.
Make no mistake, this is a case that pits the profit making ability of special interests - the aforementioned ACC, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others - against those who would argue that the greater good, that is, the health of humans and other species, as well as the viability of water and air that we all depend on for life itself, should trump financial interests and that we need to take steps, even those that adversely affect the corporate bottom line, to prevent further destruction of natural systems.
Sadly, on Wednesday the National Association of Home Builders issued an e-release announcing its support for the suit stating that:
“NAHB is pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear…(the case)…to challenge EPA’s plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.”
Interesting, I suppose, but I have been a dues paying member of the organization continuously since 1989 and no one asked my opinion before issuing the statement.
The release goes on to say, “Because of the way EPA has interpreted the statute, many NAHB members might be forced to obtain an expensive pre-construction permit for greenhouse gas emissions, which would bring most multifamily and mixed-use development to a halt. Some single-family and even some master-planned community development would also be affected.”
This comes in spite of the fact that buildings, including homes, are the largest consumers of electricity in this country and the majority of that power is produced by coal-fired plants.
The organization’s announcement follows closely on the heels of final action hearings conducted by the International Code Council (ICC) in Atlantic City that included decisions on proposals by the NAHB that would have reinstated tradeoffs in home energy performance, intended to relax the standards and eliminate gains in the energy codes made over the previous two code update cycles, effectively rolling them back to 2006 levels.
The code officials voted down the most significant of the proposals, and for the third straight cycle, supported energy efficiency in residential buildings which proponents, including many of us in the building industry, believe to be in the long term interests of the home buying public, and indeed, the population as a whole.
As October began, we celebrated the opening of the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon, held for the first time in southern California and featuring nineteen projects designed and built by university student teams from across the U. S. as well as Canada and Europe. We were treated to innovation and creativity of the highest order and we were inspired by the excitement and commitment of the next generation of builders as they strive to come up with solutions to challenges in the built environment.
Unfortunately we simultaneously learned that for the first time since records have been kept, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at four hundred parts per million, a level that takes us to the brink of what most climate science experts describe as irreversible climate change.
Is it still possible that we can learn to set aside our special interests, as individuals and as specific industries, and recognize the long term consequences of our short term strategies? Do we have the capacity to see through the smoke and undertake the incremental changes that are needed in order to make a successful, sustainable future possible? On a clear day, what does tomorrow look like?
Just before my October column was due to our editors I was headed to northern Colorado on business and had carved out time to take part in a daylong workshop that would involve “pitching” a yurt, like the ones seen in this issue of Green Builder. It was something that sounded like fun and I looked forward to a day in the sun, the learning experience and the team exercise. However, Mother Nature had ideas of her own and instead the site of the workshop and an area the size of many eastern states was inundated with what the weather experts referred to as “floods of Biblical proportions”.
The importance of the cancelled workshop quickly evaporated as we witnessed the destruction of entire communities through the live reports of multiple television news crews throughout the affected region. Stories of heroic rescues intermingled with real time camera coverage including heartbreaking scenes of swollen rivers bloated with automobiles that looked like discarded toys and chunks of completely deconstructed buildings.
One news clip, still impossible to forget, showed a lone horse, apparently hitched to a fence post, standing knee-deep in a raging current. As the helicopter camera panned back it became clear that the poor beast was left in the middle of what had essentially become a massive lake where there had once been a farm.
After almost a week, the storms finally moved eastward but they left behind the images of natural disaster based tragedies that we are becoming all too familiar with in this country; hundreds of miles of ripped out roads and bridges, entire neighborhoods and business districts still underwater, floating livestock and rotting crops in muddy fields, unsafe drinking water supplies and infrastructure damage that will take months, if not years, to rebuild.
Several people lost their lives, more than a thousand were unaccounted for as friends and families waited anxiously for contact from them, tens of thousands of homes and businesses were either totally destroyed or suffered significant damage. The financial losses quickly became unimaginable.
Yet, the lasting impression we are all left with is one of hope, the same hope and determination expressed by people who have endured other floods like these, by the survivors of Katrina and Irene, the many communities hit by tornadoes, hellish wildfires, and Superstorm Sandy. The vast majority these people refuse to see themselves as victims and they vow to rebuild, no matter what it takes.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if your intent is to construct a city or simply to pitch a yurt. To build something is one of the noble acts we have left to us as human beings. To rebuild it, is to transcend to an even higher level of expression of the human spirit. My hope is that we can learn to turn these tragedies into opportunities to provide a more sustainable set of solutions for the future as we humbly acknowledge that, despite all our suggestions to the contrary, nature is still in charge.