I just got back from Zion National Park and was surprised at how many of my native Arizona co-workers responded with “Where is that?” A six hour drive north of Phoenix, I’m amazed this gem has been hidden from so many, but then I’m realizing that corporate America isn’t the best place to find your fellow outdoorsy folk.
We first drove through Page, AZ, where my boyfriend lived for just over a year back in the beginnings of his career in the utility industry. We are something of a contradictory couple. He works as a mechanical engineer at one of the largest utility companies in Arizona, one which is part owner of one of the most controversial coal plants in the nation. He has a much different perspective of the industry than I do, and it leads to contentious discussions on many occasions.
On our way to Zion, we stayed the night in Page so that he could show me around the city where he spent a large portion of his early career. We visited Horseshoe Bend, a geological wonder deep in the canyon below, a river bending naturally in the shape of a horseshoe. He wants me to find this overwhelmingly beautiful, but I wonder—why is the water so green? Was it always this green? Is it green because of the hydrogenating station (Glen Canyon Dam) found just up the river? What did the water look like back in the 1940s? Is this really a natural wonder, or is it an unnatural tragedy?
He asks me if I think the dam was a good idea. I tell him that I don’t know enough to answer that question. What were the alternatives at the time? How else could we have generated power with the knowledge, the money, and the manpower available to us at the time of its inception? What were the factors at play in this decision? How much of it was politics, greed, and power that led to the dam, that led to the cold green-ness of the water?
Spending a semester in the Master’s program of Literature & Environment at the University of Nevada–Reno, I was introduced the works of Edward Abbey. I fell in love with Desert Solitare. His politics and viewpoints were the first I learned regarding Glen Canyon Dam.
Now, over a decade later, I’m trying to learn to think for myself. Trying to gather everything I can about a topic, both sides of the story, and then finding my way to my own answer. In some situations though I’ve found I’m just too objective. I can see the validity in many arguments and have fallen down in pinpointing the weaknesses.
At first I think maybe I find coal to be less offensive than hydroelectric. Hydroelectric damages watersheds and kills species and wrecks the natural habit for the entirety of life. But then I think more about coal. Mining coal destroys mountaintops, takes water to operate, and takes away the land from the inside out. Solar and wind are the next steps, but neither so far generates enough power to give American’s the conveniences they believe they are entitled to–consistent power, constantly running refrigerators, air conditioning in the middle of the Arizona desert–all at a reasonable price.
Wind turbines seem like a great idea. Windmills scattered in farms take up smaller space individually, but collectively it would take more space in windmills to generate the same amount of power one coal plant offers, and wind is not a constant, consistent source of power in most locations. It ebbs and flows. Our American culture insists on consistent sources of power. We cannot stand to go black for even a few minutes, let alone a fraction of the day. So wind power has to be supplemented by another source to find that consistency.
Well, what about solar? Can solar power offset and provide the balance? Maybe in small doses. Again, solar power output is not constant throughout the day. Many states would not benefit from solar power. For example, the rainy NW would need another supplemental power to provide a consistent energy source.
So what does that mean for the future? That could mean an additional bent towards coal research that finds new and cleaner ways to produce the most efficient and lasting power source there is. Could coal be melted or turned into a gas rather than put through its current production cycle (coal gasification)? Could the entire power market be turned into an independent off-the-grid marketplace, where, more like European countries, each individual business has its own solar/wind turbine that operates its own power? Maybe the power industry becomes every man for himself. Rather than being a government and big business ruled industry, it becomes a capitalist market where many manufacturers and maintenance services provide you valid sources and methods of gathering power for your individual house, neighborhood, or city.
Now, I’m not an expert (obviously) in any of this. I know a slight bit about a few things. But where the energy and utility market goes is of extreme interest to me. Not just because my boyfriend’s living is funded from it and my beliefs are slightly contrary to his–giving me hope that one day one of us can say “I told you so” to the other–but because I’m interested in how a civilized society can mass-produce power without tearing up the earth. Can it be done?
P.S. My boyfriend recycles and is a pescatarian. 🙂