Saturday, December 13, 2008

Green Buildings = Green Mountains

One of my fellow GreenFaith Fellows, Sr. Kathleen Denigan, traveled to W. Va. after our last retreat in early November. As she said, “…I am going to Appalachia to do "the great work" with people who are watching their mountains be massacred to make a bit of energy that will probably be transported to China…” More than likely however, coal being extracted by blasting mountaintops away will stay right here in the US.

Mountaintop removal is the new and improved, fast, cheap way coal companies are extracting veins of coal from Earth –new in that it started in the 1970’s, improved in that it reduces manpower needs and takes less time than digging tunnels and mining by more ‘traditional’ means would, all resulting in less labor costs and increased profit.

The environmental destruction occurring because of mountaintop removal is heart wrenching, not to mention the overall impact on general human community, i.e.: looking to take care of one another versus increasing profit. But so too, is our need for power, more and more of it each year. Just like with water (, we expect to plug a device in or flip a switch, and have the device work, or a light go on. Our lives run on electricity. And although we have the ability to purchase wind energy, or install PV –which in all honesty, remains too cost prohibitive for most at present, the fact remains that for the most part, we are all still pretty connected to coal, in some way, however large or small (save for those completely off the grid).

I don’t mean to belittle any of us who are doing what we can to reduce our energy needs. But no matter how hard we try to remove ourselves from coal generating power, the fact remains that we are in some way connected to it. We cannot control –always, who generates power for our office space, nor can we control who generates power for our grocery store, doctor’s office, school, and etc. So in some way, we are probably all connected to mountaintop removal –in fact, you can indeed find out if you are or not by visiting You can also watch some videos on mountaintop removal at that site, as well as here:

More than likely, we will continue to have coal generated power for many years into the future. This saddens me, because of the destructive environmental impacts we now know coal has, from mining to burning it –it’s not only environmental destruction either, its impacts to general health and well-being of Appalachian communities, as well as those living near the generating stations. But the reality is we won’t be able to make a switch from one form of generation to another in say, a year. And in fairness, we cannot lay blame entirely on coal companies either –although some may feel otherwise. When coal was “discovered” back in the 1700’s and started to be used to create our modern world during the Industrial Revolution, no one thought we’d wind up where we are today with respect to emissions to our air, environmental destruction, and the potential for man-made contributions to climate changes. In addition, the coal industry over many centuries has built an entire industry which supports and sustains families and local economies; relatives from both sides of my family, immigrants, worked in Pennsylvania coal mines in the early part of the 20th century.

However, I am also hopeful that coal companies are looking at ways not just to generate ‘clean coal’ (which I am sorry to those clean coal proponents, I’ve looked at both sides, weighed the facts, discerned about it, and rendered my opinion -there is no such thing as clean coal; you are welcome to yours), but ways to restructure and innovate their companies to focus on and provide renewable and cleaner forms of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal (although the latter does have some environmental impacts as well, and gives off a nasty odor of sulfur). The Saudi’s are hedging bets and investing heavily in solar –even with 18 billion barrels of oil left. Will we be buying power generated by the sun (which provides power for free) from them too in 100 years, via a global grid? They hope so.

So what do green buildings have to do with mountaintop removal? A lot. Buildings require a lot of power. Electricity powers the obvious like lights, computers and servers, vending machines, phone systems but also runs HVAC equipment, pumps, refrigeration equipment and much, much more. Don’t even get me started on what must be needed to operate Google’s servers, and who today, could exist without Google (I ask, tongue in cheek)?

Reducing the amount of power needed for a building overall reduces the need for power in general, which reduces the draw required from the grid, which reduces the amount of power a generating station must generate, which reduces the need for coal, which means, that maybe, just maybe, we won’t need as much coal as fast as we think, which means more time to shift over to newer, renewable forms of power generation to provide power for buildings.

Reducing need can be accomplished many ways: orienting a new building properly on the site to maximize natural daylight penetration, thereby reducing the need for electric light, combining mechanical and natural ventilation, thereby reducing power needed to run heating and cooling equipment, installing the most efficient lamp available for lights, thereby reducing the power needed to keep the light on, providing daylight harvesting, and much more. Much of what I’ve listed can also be implemented during retrofits of existing buildings as well. This all combined with installing renewable forms on the building itself or on the building site, when taking all buildings into account all over the country –new and existing, residential, commercial and industrial, could mean a drastic reduction in the need for coal generated power. That means that maybe more mountaintops won’t be sacrificed to quench our need for electricity.

Psalm 24 says “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” so in theory, the coal, natural gas and oil within Earth is His, and one could argue, for us to use. But Genesis also requires that we humans, made in *God’s image, exercise dominion over Earth, that is, act responsibly, in compassion and care for all of Earth, all its creatures and vegetation, all its glory, which God created. I think God challenges us way more often than we think -and in ways we would never think *He might challenge us either. Maybe, just maybe, we really need to be looking at what we want, and asking ourselves in reality, what do we need? Maybe taking the coal, every last vein of it, is like taking the last chocolate in the box when you know you’ve had way too many already, and perhaps leaving it for someone else, say, a few generations from now, might be the better thing to do.

I don’t believe God is particularly happy about seeing the beautiful mountaintops He created decimated for some veins of coal, even if they are reclaimed afterwards. But somehow sticking a few baseball fields on a now flat mountaintop, as I saw in one case, doesn’t seem to equal what was taken and what was sacrificed. There are better ways. Let’s keep working together, at table, in community, to find them. Building green is a great way to start.

*Please always feel free to insert the God of your choice (Mohammed, Buddha, etc.), as well as your perceived gender of God.

Image from website.

1 comment:

Betsy said...

Sara - I finally found time to look at your blog -- well done! Thanks especially for this post about mountaintop removal and how it is connected to the lives of those of us who don't live in Appalachia. I smiled at the "feel free to insert your perceived gender of God" comment. I already had, of course -- switching to more gender neutral language is a habit -- but I liked the acknowledgment of the language issue. Betsy