Beyond Coal in Iowa
by Paul Deaton
[Editor's Note: This article was first published on Big Grove Garden on January 9, 2011].
In 1910, 18,000 Iowans were coal miners, comprising 28% of the state's non-rural population. According to Dorothy Schwieder's Black Diamonds: Life and Work in Iowa's Coal Mining Communities 1895-1925, “in 1918 Iowa coal production reached it peak of 9,049,806 tons of coal produced” in the post World War I era. If coal mining died out in Iowa as the deposits were depleted, it has remained a dominant fuel in electricity generation. How we got to this has more to do with our history and the unrecognized costs of burning coal than anything else.
Where the author lives, we used an average of 20.6 kilowatt hours of electricity per day over the last two years. It is hard to say what that means. Likewise, it is hard to determine how much of this energy could be saved through our personal action, changing from incandescent light bulbs, unplugging computers, the modem and small appliances for parts of the day. Based on our billings from the electric utility, it costs $0.126 per kilowatt hour for our electricity, which is an affordable purchase price.
Whether we suffer from the adverse health effects of emissions from coal plants is hard to determine. We live in the plume of a couple of coal boilers, one at Archer Daniels Midland in Cedar Rapids and the University of Iowa Power Plant in Iowa City. The unregulated emissions like fine particulate matter between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter and mercury likely impact our health, although without testing the extent to which it does is hard to say. That these two coal burners operate intermittently, and also burn oat hulls from Quaker Oats, corn stover and other biomass as part of their fuel reduced the impact of coal.
These days, a majority of the coal burned in Iowa is mined in the Wyoming Powder River Basin, taking the money out of state. It appears there is an increasing vertical integration of coal delivery in Iowa, as Warren Buffet's BNSF Railroad delivers it to his MidAmerican Energy plants for electricity production. There are other utilities in the state, but MidAmerican, Alliant Energy and the Rural Electric Cooperatives dominate. Whatever efficiencies Buffet's operations create, in a competitive public utility market, what his operatives say carries weight.
If we accept that burning coal is problematic, then what can we do about it? A first step, at least outside government, has to be looking at our personal usage and becoming better managers of that. For most of us, the expense is so low, and the methodology to approach conservation so undeveloped that it really takes work to sort through this. If we truly believe in what we say, this is a necessary undertaking, one to be pursued in developing a sustainable life in Iowa. Iowans need to get beyond coal, and it will take individuals realizing effort is required to get us there. We are at a beginning point, just barely.~Paul
Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend
editor of Blog for Iowa. E-mail