Have you seen one of those crystal-clear photos of our Earth taken from space? The vast expanses of oceans have given rise to the nickname “the blue planet.”
Although that might make you think we’re the water planet, we’re really the carbon planet. Carbon exists in every living thing, plant or animal. It’s part of the oceans’ waters and the air we breathe.
Carbon is also in carbon dioxide, one of several “greenhouse gases” that form a protective layer around our planet. That layer keeps enough heat in the Earth’s atmosphere to allow life to flourish, while also reflecting excess sunlight back into space and forming a barrier to harmful radiation. The visible clouds and invisible greenhouse gases make our planet a comfortable place to live.
But greenhouse gases have been getting some bad publicity lately.
More and more observations show that the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are increasing at a faster pace than would be expected from the normal, naturally occurring variations in the kinds and quantities of plants and animals living on the land and in the oceans. Many scientists say the bigger-than-expected change is caused by human activity. And they think these changes in the greenhouse gases will affect climate all over our planet. Many scientists say climate change is already happening.
No matter how much you know—or don’t know—about science, or what you think about global climate change, dealing with greenhouse gases and managing the carbon byproducts of human activities is turning into one of the biggest issues of the 21st century.
It’s so important that in speeches and interviews around the state, the chairman of Kentucky’s Public Service Commission, Mark David Goss, says, “Every Kentuckian should read and learn as much as possible about global climate change.”
So what’s your reaction to another news story about climate change?
Do you think, “Oh, no, not that again—I don’t know what to believe and besides, I don’t care much for science.”
In this new carbon-conscious age, today’s discussions and tomorrow’s decisions about global climate change will affect you, probably a lot sooner than you think.
Kentuckians depend on carbon in two very important ways.
Coal is a form of ancient carbon from plants that died millions of years ago. Every chunk of coal mined in our state contains at least half carbon by weight. Burning coal releases that old carbon, in one form or another, to become part of the cycle of active carbon use and re-use going on right now.
The trees in our yards and forests today are another part of the carbon cycle. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and store that carbon in their trunks and roots.
Here are four important facts:
• More than 90 percent of the electricity generated in Kentucky comes from burning coal
• Nationally, about half the electricity comes from burning coal
• Kentucky’s huge coal mining industry, with reserves that will last for more than 200 years, is an economic powerhouse for our state
• Kentucky historically has among the lowest average electric rates of any state in America—a good deal for consumers and businesses here in the Commonwealth
With all the studies of greenhouse gases worldwide and the possibility of climate change, momentum is gathering for new regulations about coal, carbon dioxide, and other energy issues. Public concern crosses political boundaries, with tiny towns and huge governments in far-flung places each trying to out-do the other with new energy laws. Many individual citizens are demanding that businesses and other organizations become more energy-conscious. Could new rules change the cost of electricity for everybody? Could new regulations change the way electricity is generated from coal?
These are national issues with no clear answers yet, but plenty of new questions are being asked and possible solutions considered.
Mark Goss chairs the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Subcommittee on Clean Coal Technology. He says, “I think it’s very important that a coal state regulator has been given this opportunity to direct the discussion and dialogue on these issues.”
Goss, a native of Harlan, says, “As Kentuckians, we wouldn’t want someone in another part of the country, where coal isn’t used as much to generate electricity or where there are few rural cooperatives, to dictate terms to Kentucky. That’s why it’s especially important for members of rural electric cooperatives to understand the issues and make sure their voice is heard.”
This month’s The Future of Electricity column begins a new focus, concentrating on the complicated issues in making sure that in the years to come, you continue to have reliable, affordable electricity. Because there’s so much news these days about greenhouse gases, the first few of these columns will start there. You’ll meet some Kentuckians who are actively involved in climate change discussions, and learn about the terms used and ideas being considered in the debate over this controversial issue. And we’ll tell you how you can prepare yourself to take an active role in determining the future of electricity, not just here in Kentucky but around the world.
In the natural world, carbon is constantly moving around and changing its form. A bunch of carbon atoms might be in a solid, in the form of a chunk of coal. They might be part of a gas, in the form of carbon dioxide released when a fossil fuel is burned or when an animal exhales. Or they might be a part of a living thing, as an integral part of the cells of a plant or animal.
In many parts of the world, restrictions on human influences on this “carbon cycle” are already in place. But how can an individual, company, or government know if the rules are being followed? As concern mounts about where carbon is, in what form, and how it changes over time, many ideas are moving forward.
Next month we’ll find out how to measure carbon, why people are willing to pay for “carbon credits,” and take a look at a new program that offers Kentucky forest owners a valuable connection to the Chicago Climate Exchange.
To really understand electricity, you need to know a little about carbon. Here are some definitions:
• a plentiful, nonmetallic element—you know it in its pure form as graphite or diamonds
• abundant in many forms—it combines freely and often with other elements
• a part of coal, which is used to make nearly all the electricity in Kentucky, limestone, and all forms of petroleum
• also part of plants–the carbohydrates you eat in a slice of bread or bowl of cereal are a special combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen
• also a part of all living things–even people
Carbon dioxide is…
• an odorless, colorless gas. A carbon dioxide molecule is made of one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen—that’s why it’s known as CO2
• released each time animals breathe out
• also released when plant materials decay, during forest fires, and during the combustion of fossil fuels derived from petroleum
The carbon cycle is…
• how carbon, in all its many forms, continually moves about in plants, animals, the oceans, and the atmosphere.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: GLOBAL WARMING BASICS
What is global warming and what does it mean for you? Find answers to the basic questions about climate change and greenhouse gases.
Next month: Planting trees to save the planet