The industry, under siege from deregulation, clean-air rules, and wind and solar power, looks to friendly politicians to fight for a share of the new energy market
Wednesday, February 9, 2011 02:51 AM
By Diane Mastrull
THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Laurence Kesterson | The Philadelphia Inquirer photo
Wind turbines rise on a ridge beyond the Kimberly Run Mine in Friedens, Pa. That state's coal industry complains that alternative energy is buoyed by government subsidies. Wind and solar companies counter that coal has long had a strong voice in Pennsylvania's legislature.
Mechanization means coal companies need fewer employees such as Chris Friel, who is working a longwall mining machine in the Cumberland mine in Waynesburg, Pa.
PHILADELPHIA - Nearly 6miles into a southwestern Pennsylvania coal mine, about 900 feet underground, two massive steel wheels ringed with carbide teeth chew chunks from a pitch-black wall.
A monstrous crusher smashes excavated rock - some pieces are half the size of a car - under 12-volt halogen lights strung along the mine roof. More than 200 steel shields, each able to bear 975 tons, prop up that roof as the walls below it crumble.
|High along some of the state's forested ridges, meanwhile, wind turbines churn, their sleek, 150-foot-long fiberglass blades slicing through air in a mesmerizing rhythm.
And between earth and sky, atop rooftops or planted in rows on farmland, framed panels of silicon angle upward like sunning butterflies.
In the battle for energy supremacy in Pennsylvania and across the country, these forces of nature - coal, wind and solar power - are key combatants.
In January, the coal lobby gained what it considers a friend in the governor's mansion: Tom Corbett, a native of western Pennsylvania, where coal still pays the bills in thousands of households and underwrites community projects, and where a coal queen is crowned every year.
What that means for the state's fledgling alternative-energy industries is not clear. But the stakes are high: energy-market share in a new era of electricity deregulation and consumer choice and, as then-Gov. Edward G. Rendell argued for years, Pennsylvania's ability to re-engineer its economy to one more dominant in clean technology.
On one side of the debate: Pennsylvania's still-thriving coal towns, largely in the southwest. On the other: former industrial regions, such as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown, that after decades of job loss see economic opportunity. At a former U.S. Steel site in Bucks County, Pa., for example, a wind-turbine manufacturer employs 265.
But deregulation of the electricity market makes the battle relevant to all Pennsylvanians. It has given them more choice over who supplies their electricity, and how much of it - if any - they want to come from alternative sources such as solar and wind power.
According to the federal Energy Information Administration, 15 states and the District of Columbia have deregulated electricity markets. Ohio is among them.
Already, the coal industry considers itself threatened by federal regulations aimed at reducing pollution and greenhouse gases suspected of causing global warming. The regulations could force utilities to shutter coal-fired power plants rather than invest in upgrades to meet stricter standards for carbon-dioxide emissions.
Coal's muscle has atrophied considerably since its heyday in the early 20th century, when demand from the U.S. steel and railroad industries seemed insatiable.
At World War I's start, Pennsylvania coal was mined at a rate of 265 million tons a year; today, it's 65.5 million tons.
Those employed in coal mining topped 370,000 when excavation tools were mostly picks and shovels, rather than the computerized machinery that produces "far more tons with far fewer workers," said Jon Wood, vice president of government and external affairs for Alpha Natural Resources, the operator of 20 mines in Pennsylvania.
Technology has reduced coal-industry jobs. Now, alternative forms of energy threaten even more.
Corbett has said his energy plan includes renewable sources, but he has not provided specifics. His office did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
The coal lobby's political-action committee - which donated a total of $4,000 to Corbett's campaign in 2009 and 2010 and $142,796 to federal and state candidates from 2000 through 2010 - promises a renewed offensive to protect its turf.
Said George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association: "All we're asking for is a level playing field."
Coal's supporters argue that alternative-energy endeavors are still largely buoyed by government subsidies.
Alternative-energy advocates counter that coal has had a lopsided advantage in the state for decades, aided by a coal caucus in the legislature in the 1980s.
Energy "represents an opportunity in this region that can be bigger than the pharmaceutical sector," said Kevin P. Brown, founder of Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, which promotes innovation and investment in alternative energy.