THE COAL TRUCK backed up to the side of the house, the driver pushed a metal chute through the trap door and shiny chunks of coal clattered into the basement bin. Once I climbed into that bin. Big fuss by parents about that. Soon the coal bin disappeared, replaced by a washing machine, drier and, nearby, a furnace that burned invisible, clean, reliable oil.
This week the president said he was fulfilling his promise to bring back the coal industry by trying to undo environmental regulations that he says have hurt the industry. You could call that fake news for coal country communities suffering from high unemployment and few economic options. It’s fracking and the comparatively clean and abundant natural gas it produces that’s made coal a risky investment.
Recent images from China and India, where the air is too toxic to breathe because of coal-fired power plants, haven’t helped coal’s cause either. Not so long ago New York and other major U.S. cities had similar bad air days. It took clean air regulation to improve things so that we no longer see the pollution. We still have ozone alerts in the summer. Sometimes those alerts omit Columbia County because the government doesn’t monitor the air here. But there’s no wall around us keeping the unhealthy air from our lungs. Being unaware of the threat doesn’t make us immune to it.
There’s no coal to mine around here and several county municipalities have already banned fracking. The limestone and other geology beneath our feet don’t make us a desirable target for fossil fuel mining, as far as anybody can tell. But we do have energy resources here and there are people eager to develop them.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Philmont, Stottville, Stuyvesant Falls and Valatie all saw tremendous growth in the 19th century from mills powered by reliable sources of flowing water. Hydroelectric generation is still the biggest source of renewable energy in this state, although almost all of it comes from big dams. Here and now the hot energy source is the sun–not so reliable in the Northeast, but attractive enough when coupled with our open land and how near we are to a major leg of the power grid.
Until just over a year ago, solar power as a renewable source of electricity was something for people or organizations able to afford panels on their roofs. Then a 21-acre cluster of solar panels was proposed for Greenport and a 10-acre cluster popped up in Craryville. Now there’s a plan for a “solar farm” on 400 acres also in Craryville that would harvest electrons and feed them into the power grid for what the local owner hopes will be a profit.
Towns like Copake and Kinderhook are scrambling to limit or possibly even prohibit these types of commercial facilities. The basis for the zoning restrictions proposed or already in place cite the value of the landscape in its natural state or used for traditional purposes like farming, recreation or… uh-oh, development. And while opponents may have cause to fret about who will clean up the mess when solar gear wears out or owners depart, there’s another side to this dilemma.
Much of what we want to protect is already threatened by climate change. One of the best ways to slow down the alarming rate of change we’re now seeing is to wean ourselves off carbon-based sources of electrical energy like natural gas, fuel oil and coal. So what is our obligation to ourselves and generations to come? We have the authority to restrict commercial solar arrays, but knowing about climate change, do we have the right to forbid them?
Today’s solar farms may outlast many of us reading this. But like the old factories, they’ll eventually disappear or be repurposed for uses we can’t imagine. By contrast, at the rate we’re now using fossil fuels the disruptive effects of climate change will outlast our species.
The president says regulation inhibits progress. Facts say he’s wrong and town boards should avoid the his mistake. Sure, require funds for removal of defunct equipment, establish solar farm zones, insist on safety features and screening. But build in flexibility–the technology will change and so will the market.
Solar panels supply less than 1% of the state’s renewable electricity, so right now they’re a itty-bitty part of the answer to climate change. But every panel we have here replaces some fossil fuel that would have been burned elsewhere. Responsibility for climate change begins in our backyards.