Groups disagree on future of energy

By Austin Miller

Coal is one the oldest forms of energy in the world, being the fossilized remnants of trees that are millions of years old. Now, the debate is whether or not people should continue to use it.

Jeff Biggers, a southern Illinois native and author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, said the future of energy lies in renewable energy sources, rather than coal.

Biggers, who spoke about the future of energy in Illinois on Oct. 16 at Guyon Auditorium, comes from a family of coal miners, and said his grandfather paid for his mother’s education at SIU with wages made as a coal miner.

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“We are looking now at a huge issue of conflict,” Biggers said. “This is the challenge of our generation.”

One of the problems with using coal is the working conditions of mines, Biggers said. He said there was a tenfold increase of black lung disease cases from 1998 and 2012, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate is the highest since the 1970s.

Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust, which builds up in the lungs. Biggers said black lung disease was the cause of his grandfather’s death.

Brent Ritzel, president of the Buckminster Fuller Future Registered Student Organization, helped bring Biggers to SIU.

Ritzel, a master’s student in public administration said there are scores toxins present during coal’s life cycle; extraction, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal all put toxins like mercury and carbon dioxide into the air.

Tomasz Wiltowski, director of the Coal Research Center, said coal experts are researching ways to harvest the carbon dioxide from burning coal and turn it into fuels. He said efficiency is an important part of coal processing and plants are working on improving it.

“A typical coal-fired power plant is about 40 percent efficiency, at best,” he said. “What this means is that 60 percent of this chemical energy within the coal is being wasted. So we have to find the technology that is not only cleaner, but more efficient.”

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The excess carbon dioxide is contributing to global climate change, Biggers said.

Average summer temperatures in Illinois are projected to increase by 3 degrees over the next few decades because of climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Nuisances such as ticks and mosquitoes thrive in warmer climates, and can increase instances of Lyme and West Nile diseases.

Frequent heat waves increase the ozone in the atmosphere, deteriorating the air quality. Big cities such as Chicago and St. Louis already have problems with air quality, according to the EPA.

An increase in severe storms and flood damage is also predicted because of the harm of fossil fuels.

Janet Donoghue, assistant to the sustainability coordinator, said to prevent further climate change issues, the country needs to vary our sources of energy.

“If you think about coal, we’re basing everything on death,” she said. “These are literally fossils. It’s the past. It’s history. For the future, we really need to be looking at more ways to diversify.”

Wiltowski said renewable energy will work together with traditional energy sources in the future.

“Taking both renewables and fossil fuels together and using them is very efficient,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen in 20 years, the science moves forward so fast, so maybe we will not have to use it. But at least for today, we have no choice.”

Steve Willis, regional safety director for the American Coal Company, said coal helps create more than 1,000 jobs in southern Illinois. He said a coal job helps create more than 10 other jobs.

“It’s probably the most important source of jobs here,” Willis said. “Here in southern Illinois, coal is still the cheapest source of energy, compared to solar and wind.”

Ritzel said solar energy should be a big business in southern Illinois. He said Germany is one of the leading nations in using renewable energy, with more than 27 percent of the country’s electrical demand being met by renewable energy sources.

The use of solar, wind and hydropower energy increased 7 percent from 2012, according to a September report from the United States Department of Energy. Nearly 12 percent of the nation’s energy production came from renewable sources that year.

Austin Miller can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AMiller_DE.

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