Cumberland Falls is a lovely little waterfall, almost a miniature Niagara, on the Cumberland River in southern Kentucky, about 15 miles west of Corbin. And Corbin, of course, is the location of the gas station where Colonel Sanders opened his first fried chicken restaurant.
But I’m thinking about coal rather than deep fried chicken.
Just above the Cumberland Falls the river bed widens over a broad, flat sheet of conglomerate, and when the river runs hard, it deposits gravel and pebbles in the hollows of that sheet of rock. You can stroll the 50 yards across the rock over to the edge of the river, almost like walking in a parking lot.
And you could easily fill a gunnysack during that stroll with 50 pounds of pebbles. The pebbles are black, glistening in the sunlight, ranging in size from grapes to flattened, dollar-bill sized oblongs. They have half the heft of stone, and their surface, though not dead smooth, is somehow silken to the touch.
The Cumberland River runs through coal country, and proves it by washing chunks from the seams along its course and tumbling those chunks into the curiously beautiful pebbles which collect along its banks.
I picked up about ten pounds of coal pebbles in just a few minutes, and just for fun, will burn them in my wood stove when I get back to NH. The neighbors may complain. Coal smoke can be smelly, but if our local electric utility 20 miles down the road can burn coal by the ton, I make no apology for firing up a few pounds.
A fishing friend of mine named George loads that coal for the power plant, and his description of the volume of coal, the endless coal trains, has always been a little difficult for me to imagine.
If you haven’t figured it out already, you need to realize that coal is quickly becoming the single most contentious player in the coming Carbon Wars. That’s because them as has it uses it. China has it. We have it. And a few other countries have it. Most countries don’t have it. And if you have it, that means, generally, it’s the cheapest type of energy you can get. The U.S. still gets almost twice as much of its energy from oil that from coal. But if oil gets harder and more expensive to come by, who’re you gonna call? Coal and natural gas. [FYI: as of 2008, the U.S. burned enuf oil to produce 40 quadrillion BTUs. And got about 22 quadrillion BTUs each from natural gas and coal. Nuclear? Barely warmed our backsides with about 9 quadrillion BTUs, and hydro was about 2 quadrillion.]
Don’t think it’s gonna go away soon. Or even in 50 years. Or even 100. Get used to it. Get real.
Which is not to say that the overall results of its use aren’t nasty, and that the politics and economics surrounding coal and its production aren’t vile, and that its effects on the local communities where it is mined aren’t a paralyzing mix of very good and very, very bad. James Fallows recently published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled Dirty Coal, Clean Future which you should save to read by flashlight this winter when your electricity goes out and there’s no wind to spin your mill. In the article Fallows takes a look at what’s happening in China to try to put the genie of coal carbon back in the bottle, versus what’s going on…or not going on…in the U.S.
And that article led me to a book I’ve begun reading this morning (yes, it’s an ebook I downloaded to my Eye Pad) by Robert Bryce called Power Hungry. A book to read and argue about if you are one of those who firmly believes that wind and solar will supply anything more than a fraction of our energy needs any time before our great grandchildren reach the age where they begin cursing our generation for not adequately funding Social Security.
Yup. It’s the coal, stupid. At the very least, do yourself a favor and learn a little more about it. You are gonna be using it, and arguing about it, for the rest of your life.
Here’s a relatively spin-free collection of coal facts that I found helpful as a beginning reference point.
So… I learned to kill chickens because I figure if I’m going to eat meat, I need to know what it is to kill. Does it not follow, therefore, that if I’m going to use coal-generated electricity I should go dig some coal in a mine? Or scrape it out of an open pit on a scalped West Virginia mountaintop? Or is it enough to merely pick up a gunnysack full along the Cumberland River?