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Michelle Hu
Nick Greven
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Wind turbine and solar panels at Union City High School.
(Michelle Hu / Y-Press)
Wind turbine and solar panels at Union City High School.
July 25, 2009

In 1748, the first coal for fuel use was mined in the United States. Since then, mining and converting coal into power has revolutionized the United States. First used for domestic heating and to power trains and steamboats, it has expanded to power factories and households through the electricity it creates.

However, as people become more aware of its carbon emissions and environmental detriments, what is to become of it?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, about half of today’s energy in America comes from coal, which is made of compressed organic compounds. In Indiana, that figure is even greater, at more than 90 percent. But while coal is low cost, it also is a “dirty” fuel, and environmentalists are rallying to reduce the country’s dependence on it, especially as U.S. energy demands increase year to year (factoring in an increase in total homes, the DOE expects household electricity consumption to increase 20 percent by 2030).

Proponents of alternative energy stress the production of alternative sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels. Others recognize the importance of coal to Indiana (and to top coal-producing states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming) and prefer to explore the clean coal route, in which carbon emissions from coal plants are captured and stored underground. In any case, one trend is apparent: Despite the acknowledgment of a need to alter daily habits in order to protect the environment, many youth feel apathetic about changing the status quo.

For some, coal has been so integral to the local economy that it seems unlikely to take a lesser role in the future. Communities like Jackson, Ky., depend on the coal industry to stay alive. Named after former President Andrew Jackson, Jackson serves as the seat of Breathitt County and is home to about 2,500 people.

Jackson youth are understandably defensive about coal as a desirable energy source. “There aren’t many jobs around here,” said Tabitha Jones, 17, whose father works as a rock truck driver for the International Coal Group. “There aren’t any factories, so most families around here do rely on coal to sustain our county.”

According to Tabitha, who was one of three Jackson youth interviewed, everyone knows everyone else in Jackson. All attend Jackson City School, which includes grades preschool-12 and houses 412 students in all. The school as a whole performs well. All of its seniors graduated in 2007, and over 80 percent of them went on to attend college. Tabitha hopes to do the same and become a doctor someday.

However, life isn’t as favorable for the older residents of the town. Tabitha’s father is not college educated and turned to the coal mines for a job. Without the coal industry, she said, her father would be unemployed.

“In most places you can’t get a job without a college education,” Tabitha said. “But coal mines usually accept people without a college degree, because they can take a mining class and don’t have to go to college.”

Youth in Jackson also see the positive local benefits of the coal industry. Tabitha and her brother said there used to be hills and mountains that were good only for scenery. Now that the coal mining companies have stripped and flattened the land, the community has grown. The area attracted not only business, but animals as well.

“Because the mountains have been removed, elk can come in. You know, we have more animals and species than we used to,” she said.

Jackson is just one Kentucky community in which coal is king. According to Kentucky’s Office of Employment and Training, the average mining salary for Breathitt County is about $45,000, much higher than the median county income of $25,500. For Tabitha, this determines her way of life and, consequently, her willingness to jump on board with alternative energies.

“I want to protect the environment,” she said. “I think it’s good and I think we should be responsible, but it’s also job loss. Unless there was another way to bring those jobs back to the community somehow, I wouldn’t (promote alternative energy).”

While it may be understandable that Jackson youth are not in a rush to convert to energy alternatives, even youth in areas where progressive energy sources are prominent are not too concerned either.

Take Union City, Ind., for example. Its youth live in an environment full of alternative sources of energy. Their school system uses hybrid school buses and their high school has its own wind turbine and solar panels. Soon, the town hopes to install a full-sized wind turbine on its outer limits. Though the school’s turbine currently produces only enough energy to power one room, students are able to do research with it, including weather observations.

These changes were initiated by environmental science teacher John Zakelj, who has taught in the district for nine years. He is a professed environmental enthusiast and designed his house about a decade ago to be eco-friendly. Not only is it relatively small and thus uses less energy, it is oriented toward the south, which allows it to stay warm during the winter. Additionally, it is well-insulated and passively solar-powered, both of which help his family save energy.

His students, however, are not as willing to make such drastic changes. “It’s something that we’re all on board with, the school going green and doing whatever we can to help,” said Tyler Fields, 18. “But I mean, it’s not something that we’re going to go to extremes just to get done.”

Another Union City youth, 16-year-old Dustin Holmes, calls himself a motor head and loves everything about cars. It’s also the only connection he has to clean energy. “Close as I got to being green is talking about gas mileage for the truck. That’s about it. Ten miles a gallon will hurt you,” he said.

For Tyler, his family started becoming green at the insistence of his father, who wished to purchase a hybrid car. After Zakelj brought in a box of showerheads that used less water, Tyler’s family jumped on board. Overall, however, the Union City teens said their friends do little to change their lifestyles. 

They said they are willing to adapt to changes Zakelj or other adults instigate. Tyler said he anticipates future governmental restrictions on energy usage, and his classmates agreed. “I think if they’re wanting our environment to stay at a quality as we want it, we’re going to have to become more green,” he said.

On a larger scale, Edyta Sitko of Greenpeace has seen the same trend. When she began as a global-warming field organizer for Indiana, Sitko said she expected to work with mostly youth or young professionals. Instead, over half of the members she encountered were in their 40s or 50s and raising families or retired.


Even though youth are often considered at the vanguard of change in society, the reality is that they are often the most unwilling to change for one reason or another. Tabitha mentioned her father’s job and the community’s livelihood as her reasons for resisting alternative energy, but Sitko said the coal industry is actually harming coal communities. “The coal mining industry has been losing jobs steadily every year because every year more and more machinery replaces people in coal mining,” she said. “So it’s not really a job creator anymore; it’s a job loser.”

In addition, Sitko has visited several mined areas and says there is nothing beautiful about what is left behind. “If you go into communities that have had coal mining … it’s just literally gaping open holes in the middle of mountains, like completely destroyed habitat covered in soot and ash and everything in between,” she said.

Sitko believes renewable energy sources, not coal, will result in future jobs and beautiful landscapes,

That time isn’t here yet. In a response typical for both Union City and Jackson teens, Tyler said: “We don’t sit around, talking about how we can save energy everywhere.”

Adam Barga, 17, explained that it’s impractical to save energy by limited driving in Union City because everything is so far apart. “The nearest town from here is eight miles away. It’s just impossible to ride a bike or walk and make it convenient,” he said.

So many of these youth will wait until adults like Zakelj and Sitko implement a change before they incorporate it into their daily lives. While they recognize the importance of environmental preservation, they don’t stand ready to initiate reform. The youth may be interested in change, but they seem to lack the will to make it happen.

ASSISTANT EDITORS: Warren Stokes, 18, Vince Reuter, 17.
REPORTER: Charlie Osborne, 13.


More info

By Michelle Hu, 17 and Nick Greven, 17

Clean coal is the term for the method of extracting energy from coal in a clean and efficient manner.

The method is still under research and, currently, there are no clean coal plants in existence. The closest anyone has come to a clean coal plant so far is Duke Energy’s cleaner coal gasification combined-cycle plant in Edwardsport, Knox County, which plans to begin production in 2012.

An integral process that defines clean coal is carbon capture and storage (CCS), in which the greenhouse gases that are released by the coal plant are compressed and most often buried underground. It is this element of the process that has yet to be actually implemented, and its feasibility is what scientists and politicians most often argue over.

1. Coal is abundant in the United States (Indiana alone has enough coal to power the state for the next 1,500 years).
2. A national infrastructure is already in place, with an electrical grid, coal power plants and coal mines.
3. Burying compressed CO2 could force oil closer to the surface, allowing for easier access and decrease of oil imports.
4. Towns and cities dependent on the coal industry will stay alive.
5. Coal is currently the cheapest form of energy.

Source: Marty Irwin, director of the Indiana Center for Coal Technology Research, a state government agency that partners with engineers at Purdue University to develop more efficient methods of extracting energy from coal, specifically, clean coal and carbon capture and storage.

1. CCS is not expected to be available on a mass level until 2030. To prevent the worst of global warming, many experts agree that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 2015.
2. CCS uses a lot of energy. It is expected to erase the efficiency gains of the past 50 years in coal-fired power plants.
3. Storage of compressed CO2 may not be safe on a mass level.
4. CCS could double coal plant costs.
5. Large-scale investment takes money away from other clean energy sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric.

Source: Edyta Sitko, global-warming field organizer for Greenpeace, who has been in Indiana two years working to educate the public on global warming and its contributors
Greenpeace International report: “False Hope: Why carbon capture and storage won’t save the climate.”


Copyright 2009 Y-Press

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