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VOL. 41 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 16, 2017

Coal is dying, and the free market holds the murder weapon

By Holie Deese

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Michael Walton, the grandson of a coal miner, runs Green Spaces. Here he stands in front of a home with solar panels installed by his company.

-- Alex Mcmahan | The Ledger

Chattanooga’s Michael Walton, 33, grew up in Greenville, Tennessee, about six hours from Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where his biological grandfather was a supervisor at a strip coal mine.

His grandfather died when Walton’s father was just 5, of pneumonia, speculatively caused by the working conditions. His grandmother died just six months later, and Walton’s dad was raised by his aunt.

It’s a way of life Michael Walton has no intention of living, despite President Trump’s commitment to bringing back coal jobs. Walton knows those jobs aren’t coming back, and like many of the others who have found life outside of coal, he doesn’t really want them to.

“I think a lot of people in coal country, at least historically, are working to make a better life for their children,” Walton says. “Ultimately, that’s what we all do, at least those of us that have kids. I would say that that was successful in some ways.”

From 2012 to 2015, coal had a growth rate of -4.25 percent. Renewable energy had a growth rate of 6 percent growth during that period.

In 2015, renewable energy jobs in the U.S. reached 769,000. The solar industry alone employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined internationally.

“It’s just not competitive to build a coal plant today,” Walton says. “Every energy source in the country has depended on massive amounts of investment from the federal government. Nuclear was basically started by the federal government in Oak Ridge.

“The oil and coal industries have received hundreds of billions of dollars over the years, as well as taking land rights from poor people in West Virginia and Kentucky.

“It’s important that we understand that there is a role for the federal government to play in advancing these new and better energy technologies. It’s certainly disheartening from a global standpoint that we backed out of the Paris Accord.

“But barring additional punitive steps targeted at renewable energies, this train has left the station. Backing out of the Paris Accord will do nothing to help coal jobs.”

Walton’s father bypassed the coal industry himself and went into mechanical engineering while Walton, a licensed architect, is now running Green Spaces, a sustainability nonprofit in Chattanooga that works to advance the sustainability of living, working, and building through education, training, consulting, and demonstration development.

Green Spaces works primarily through three flagship programs:

Empower Chattanooga, an education and outreach program in low-income neighborhoods about lowering utility bills

Green Light, a rapidly-expanding green business certification that includes local businesses as well as the city and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Next Gen Homes, a series of net zero energy homes built in the community.

“We finished, developed, designed and sold the first one, and now we’re about to start construction on the next three, two of which have already been sold,” Walton explains. “The purpose of that project is to really drive demand in the marketplace, and let people know in Chattanooga that if they’re building at this price point, they should be getting a net zero energy home.”

Profit, planet, people

Walton says environmental sustainability’s appeal to local businesses is a triple bottom line – the economic bottom line, the environmental bottom line and the social bottom line, and whether they have a positive or negative impact on the people that work for them and the community around them.

“In 2014, one out of every six dollars under professional management was invested according to environmentally and socially responsible strategies,” he says. “That’s $6 trillion. And that money isn’t out there necessarily to just be altruistic. It’s out there because companies that do that out-perform companies that don’t.”

Where businesses see value is in the resource side, Walton adds, basically saving energy, saving water, and lowering their operating expenses. And one of the big ways that people are using this is employee attraction and retention.

“Fifty percent of millennials are willing to take a pay cut to work at a business that shares their values,” he continues. “Really it’s about getting the top talent, and keeping the top talent. Then the third big thing is that recognition, being recognized as a leader in a community that has seen what happens when you don’t think about the triple bottom line.”

Chattanooga is one of those communities, and in 1969, it wasn’t an environmentally or socially sustainable community. Eventually people started abandoning the city in droves.

“A lot of people here have seen what the alternate reality looks like, and it’s not just a hypothetical,” Walton says. “Human-caused climate change is real. If 97 percent of the people watching your soup say that somebody spit in your soup, would you eat it? I wouldn’t.”

Walton grew up hunting, fishing, hiking and camping as a Boy Scout and says something that might be missing from the national dialogue about sustainability and climate change is how much the parts of the country that are more conservative have a closer relationship to the environment generally than those that don’t.

“It really strikes me as strange that there is such a disconnect in how we communicate about it,” he says.

Move to soul-satisfying jobs

Dodd Galbreath is the Founding Director and Assistant Professor of Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. In the past decade, his and other sustainability programs across the nation have grown to a level of credibility, in part, because of the ability for students to get good-paying jobs and to succeed in the workplace.


“We have one alum who is telling robots how to build a Tesla electric car. We have another alum who has worked with the PGA greening golf courses and won an award on an island in the Mediterranean from the International Golf Course Managers Association for her work on zero waste on golf courses.

“We’ve got students who’ve created businesses that didn’t exist 10 years ago, one right here in Nashville called The Compost Company,” Galbreath says. “So, all of the food waste for the Music City Center, for example, is composted by this company and turning food into fertilizer.”

Other students are in state and local government developing public policy in the absence of the federal government’s engagement, which Galbreath says does nothing for his students.

“It naturally limits the employment opportunities in the federal government because if the federal government is not pursuing those goals, then they’re not going to hire people to pursue those goals,” Galbreath continues. “But the federal government is, by no means, the biggest player on the block when it comes to employment.”

Galbreath says that students are still drawn to jobs in sustainability, despite any support or lack thereof from the federal government. In many cases it doesn’t even come from an idealistic place – it comes from seeing their parents struggle to maintain their idea of success, including the big yard, the big house, the nice cars. Simpler, to them, is better, and so are the meaningful careers they can have with a pared-down life.

“They are figuring out how to have meaningful careers,” Galbreath says. “They want a job, but they want a job that’s meaningful and that they’ll enjoy and that will make the world better. They want to be part of that process.”

“I think all of us bought into this concept of success, and now we’ve gotten so wrapped up in it, that it’s obvious to the next generation that it’s not fun,” Galbreath adds.

Galbreath estimates that 90 percent of what Lipscomb students do focuses on new concepts, new business technologies, new practices of managing waste and new models for creating a sustainable society. The other 10 percent is focused on how to do a better job of recycling on campus.

“How do we get West Fork or Browns Creek that runs alongside Lipscomb’s campus off the most polluted streams list? We’re planting trees, and we’re restoring habits. So, it’s mostly focused on future solutions while making our neighborhood around Lipscomb better.”

“And we’ve equipped them with the education systems and the economy and the freedom to go pull it off,” he adds.

The Trump administration also has talked about potentially cutting the Energy Star program, which has been around since 1992, has 16,000 partners and has saved families and businesses $430 billion on their energy bills and 4.6 trillion kilowatt hours of energy.

“And it’s completely voluntary,” Walton points out. “Not a regulation. Nobody has to buy Energy Star appliances. Nobody has to use the tools that they make available to building owners, like Energy Star Portfolio Manager. But if you call any major commercial real estate owner and ask if they us Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager they will say, ‘yes,’ because it’s a great tool for them to be able to track their energy consumption.

“They’re not required to, but they do it anyway, because it’s useful. If things like that go away, it makes it a lot harder for the businesses that we serve to save energy, and just be responsible with their resources.”

As for larger scale economics, Wacker Chemie has a plant in Chattanooga in which they purify the crystallized silicone used in solar panels. That’s 650 jobs. Tennessee Solar Solutions went from one employee 10 years ago to 22 employees today, and millions of dollars in revenue.

“If somebody is supportive of us backing out of the Paris Accord because of jobs, they’re mistaken,” Walton explains. “Arby’s employs more people than the entire coal industry. I don’t think we’re making any decisions at the global level based on what Arby’s wants. At least I hope not.”

Walton also adds that one of the biggest supporters of renewable energy in the Southeast is the U.S. military, which is installing solar systems and batteries at the bases because it understands the importance for national security in having a distributed electrical grid as opposed to one central plant that somebody could bomb.

“If you remember in the Iraq War, the first thing that the U.S. military did was take out the power plant,” Walton says. “If you’ve got massive amounts of distributed renewable energy that you don’t need a central power plant for, it’s a lot harder to do that.”

Ultimately, the Paris Accord was about global leadership that works. Withdrawing from it just gives leadership to someone else.

“When scientists agreed that chlorofluorocarbons were causing a hole in the ozone layer, we came together and joined 197 other countries and joined the Montreal Protocol,” Walton says.

“We voluntarily eliminated CFCs from a lot of the sources and the ozone hole is repairing itself now. This kind of global leadership and global agreement can work. These huge, seemingly intractable problems can be solved with a bunch of little actions.

I think that’s what’s most unfortunate, is we’ve really ceded our leadership position globally to other countries like China. They’re rapidly trying to decarbonize, and they’re taking credit for it, and they’re getting credit for it.”

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