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Tamminen: Dying For Energy Is Wrong

Let there be no doubt that my first reaction was empathy for the family, friends, and co-workers of those who perished (5) and those injured (27) in the power plant explosion in Middletown, Conn. last week. After we pay our respects and mourn the lost, however, who else is as angry as I am over the fact that no one in 21st century America should die in the quest to keep our lights on and our flat panel TVs glowing with moving images?

The coal fueled Fiddlers Ferry power station emits vapour into the night sky in Warrington, United Kingdom.
Getty Images
The coal fueled Fiddlers Ferry power station emits vapour into the night sky in Warrington, United Kingdom.

The US Department of Labor website boasts that “annual coal mining deaths numbered more than 1,000 a year in the early part of the 20th century…[but] the yearly average has decreased to 30 fatalities from 2001-2005.”

Perhaps that is reason to celebrate compared to China’s last official statistic of over 6,000 coal mining deaths in 2004. Of course neither of those figures includes the deaths from ingesting mercury or inhaling particulate matter spewed from coal-fired power plants in both countries every year.

Doesn’t it occur to either government that deaths, injuries and human suffering from coal and gas are entirely preventable? The Connecticut gas power plant that exploded during construction was slated to produce about 600 megawatts at a cost of $1 billion (not including this added cost of rebuilding after the accident).

For about twice that, the state could have built an equally sized solar or wind power plant. Of course the idea of paying double for anything isn’t appealing—but that’s only part of the true cost/benefit accounting.

While the upfront costs for a 600-megawatt clean/renewable energy facility would indeed exceed the cost of a gas or coal plant, the solar and wind generators pay absolutely nothing to produce a lifetime of energy supply.

The gas and coal plants will pay billions more in fuel costs, waste disposal costs, and carbon cost (remember that Connecticut already participates in a carbon cap-and-trade system and within the lifetime of any powerplant built today, every state in the nation will likely put a price on carbon).

The Tennessee Valley Authority recently announced that the total cleanup costs for its massive 2008 coal ash pond spill will top $1.2 billion—plus uncounted millions more to dispose of toxic coal ash in the future, so that tragedy never occurs again.

And how much do the line items show in the operating budget of a new fossil-fueled energy facility for human lives, injuries and suffering?

When we flip a light switch or plug in the toaster, we may fail to remember how people actually died to make that possible, but the families of the workers in Connectcut will never forget—and we will never be able to repay that debt in our energy bills.

Let’s end these tragedies and have the guts to say that there is no such thing as clean coal or cleaner bridge fuels. Yes, we have the technology to capture and sequester carbon and cancer-causing pollutants from fossil-fueled power plants, but there is no way to bury the true cost accounting for the continued greed and stupidity of reliance on 19th-century energy sources when 21st century options are so much smarter and safer.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

To persuade our political and business leaders, perhaps a few more of us will need to take up the call that the iconic TV newscaster shouted from the rooftops in the 1976 movie “Network” , when he screamed, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Dying for energy is no longer necessary and if that doesn’t make more of us mad as hell, I can’t imagine what will.

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Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).