Coal, wind and environmental irony

Stopped by the Floyd Country Store Thursday night to watch The Electricity Fairy, a 2010 documentary on the battle over approval and construction of a coal-fired power plant in Wise County.

While the 52-minute film by director Tom Hansell has a clear anti-coal point of view, it presented a reasonably-balanced account of the years-long fight that divided Wise County residents and became a rallying cry for clean air activisits.

One part of the film, however, offered a bit of irony for Floyd.  When the camera focused on the banner and logo for “Wise Up Dominion,” the organization formed to block the power plant, it featured a ridge line with electricity-generating wind turbines — signalling the group’s support of the cleaner, wind-energy generating of electricity instead of a coal-fired plant.

The irony comes from the 11 people I saw among the crowd applauding the documentary — the same 11 who have appeared before the Floyd County Board of Supervisors in the last two months to oppose construction of wind generators here.

The opposition demonstrates the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome that creates some hypocrisy in such debates. It’s easy to support clean-air alternatives for energy when those alternatives aren’t proposed for your backyard.

I cruised by the power plant construction site in Wise County a couple of weeks ago. The plant — expected to cost at least $1.5 billion — is scheduled to open in the next year or two.  It will provide more than $400 million in annual tax revenue to cash-strapped Wise County.

But coal is not a “clean energy” alternative and even the best efforts by coal companies to promote the fantasy of “clean coal,” it never will be.  Solar, wind and Geo-thermal offer some cleaner alternatives but when you suggest constructing wind generator farms on Wills Ridge and other ridge lines you get dire warnings about damage to the county’s fragile water table and destruction of the area’s “view shed.”

Like the coal-fired power plant debate in Wise County, the wind generator issue has sharply divided residents of our county.  Facts get lost in passionate arguments from both sides.

As counties like Floyd struggle to find new sources of revenue, proposals to construct a power-generating facility cause eyes to light up in meetings of governmental bodies.  Those who support or oppose such projects need to provide our elected officials with facts, not hyperbole.

The Electricity Fairy offers a clear example of how gimmicks and photo ops don’t work. The opponents of Dominion Power‘s plant paraded a mile-long petition before the TV cameras, sang 60s-style protest songs and even chained themselves to the fence leading to the construction project.

None of it worked.  The company gained all the required permits and approvals to build the plant and construction is underway.

And “WiseUpDominiong.Org,” the web site of the organization that fought the plant, is gone from the Internet. The domain name is up for sale.

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2 thoughts on “Coal, wind and environmental irony”

  1. I would challenge the statement as worded that public demonstrations don’t work. I cannot think of a single time when a single public display of disapproval has “worked” in and of itself. Consider the civil rights movement. Would we say that what Rosa Parks did did not work because that single action by itself failed to repeal a century of injustice? How else than in united numbers time after time before oppression from high places can we hope to peacefully bring about change? We could move past the “gimmicks” and foment straight to an Appalachian Arab Spring. It may come to that. Let’s try a mile of petitions first.

  2. Fred:

    I’m sorry but I must disagree.

    I think it is a stretch to compare the actions of a Rosa Parks — taken at a far different time and in a less media-gimmick-driven society — with staged media events like “mile long petitions.” I believe that when a movement — any movement — resorts to cheap media gimmicks it is lost. That can include dressing up as Uncle Sam to attract attention at a tea party rally or singing 60s-style peace songs at a 2008 rally to try and stop approval of a coal-fired power plant.

    The public, in my opinion, is desensitized to such gimmicks in today’s political environment. Isn’t it also somewhat ironic that environmentalists used a “mile-long” petition — signed on paper created out of wood paper pulp — to protest an issue on environmental grounds?

    An example: In another life, I served as vice president for political programs for the National Association of Realtors from 1987-1992. When I took over that position, I assumed control of an “Issues Mobilization Program” that tried to win real estate friendly ballot initiatives. My predecessor created gimmick-driven campaigns that usually failed. I revamped the program by using fact-driven themes that stressed economic benefit. We won 85 percent of our campaigns in five years.

    This did not happen because I was smarter than anyone else. Far from it. I had the advantage of inexperience, which meant I could try something without the bias of thinking that it wouldn’t work. I was lucky but I also learned that the public, when presented with facts that show a clear benefit, will respond positively to an issue.

    It appears — at least from my perspective — that opponents of the coal-fired power plant in Wise County lost the battle because they could not fight the money issue. Taxes from the facility will generate — annually — more money than the current total budget of Wise County government. That’s a hard-issue to overcome and you can’t win it through protests.

    That’s my perspective and — like all perspectives — it is nothing more than an opinion.

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