A Thousand Splendid Power Plants

Light Pollution

Xcel Energy’s Valmont East Terraforming Station in Boulder, CO. As a side effect, it powers all the lights you see in the background.

James Watt’s industrial revolution was fired by coal, is fired by coal, and shall be fired by coal under the current plan, until death do us part.  Anthracite, lignite and bituminous — it is all nearly pure carbon, sequestered in the shallow inland seas of the Carboniferous, scavenged from a powerful greenhouse atmosphere by the first macroscopic life to colonize the land, 350 million years ago.  It was into these scaly fern tree forests, club mosses, cycads, and giant horsetails that we tetrapods laboriously crawled so long ago, to gasp our first desperate breaths.

Industrial power, carbon and coal are deeply synonymous.  The SI unit of power is named for Watt, and the word “carbon” is derived from the Latin carbo, which means coal.  Many of the super-human abilities we are accustomed to wielding today are intimately bound up with this strange rock that burns.  Our purpose in burning it is to release usable heat, and we consider the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to be a side-effect of that process.  In the fullness of time I suspect we will come to see that relationship reversed.  When we look back at today’s coal fired power plants a few centuries from now, we won’t see them as electricity generators.  We will instead see them as components of a massive, coordinated and yet unintended climatic engineering project.  We are effectively terraforming the Earth, participating in the transformation of our planet as a new force of nature.  It’s not the first time life has done something like this.  The cyanobacteria began pumping oxygen into the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago, incidentally making both fire and macroscopic organisms possible for the first time.  And also incidentally oxidizing away a lot of previously stable atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, plunging the Earth into the deep freeze for three hundred million years.  I hope that we can be more mindful of the consequences of our actions than the blue-green algae were, but honestly I’ve got my doubts.

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