August 20, 2014

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Oberlin professor explains price for using cheap energy

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Ohio is a coal-fired state, but it could replace its dirty coal-burning plants with wind and solar power, said David Orr, a nationally known environmental ist and Oberlin College professor.

Burning coal creates cheap electricity, but it contributes to global warming, Orr told about 150 students at Lake Ridge Academy during a speech Tuesday.

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CHUCK HUMEL / CHRONICLE
Chuck Humel / Chronicle
Environmentalist David Orr

It also kills people with pollution and devastates the land through mountaintop clearing, Orr said. Ohio has numerous coal-fired plants, and a study by the National Environmental Trust and the Ohio Environmental Council released Tuesday shows that Ohio is the fifth worse polluting state.

“Somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 people die each year because they live downwind of coal-fired electric plants,” Orr said.
“Who dies early because of our addiction to cheap energy?”

Orr, who was a consultant for Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmentalist film “The 11th Hour,” said wind and solar power hold a lot of promise.

Solar panels at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College provide all the electricity for that building. The surplus energy it produces goes into the power grid, he said.

A wind farm near Bowling Green is producing more energy than expected, and another is planned for Clyde, Orr said. The south shore of Lake Erie is very promising for wind power, Orr said, and Texas is “the Saudi Arabia of wind power.”
Oberlin has become involved in the debate as it asks, “How do we get off carbon?” said Orr, who is among the experts serving on a panel of city and college personnel studying the problem. 

Orr told students to “bug your parents” to conserve, saying helping the environment requires sacrifice. California allowed electric rates to rise, which has caused energy usage to drop, he said.

“You and I do more damage than 60 or 70 people in India or Bangladesh,” he said, adding later: the big question is, “How do we get off car bon — in effect, like an addict trying to get off drugs.”

Nuclear energy is highly subsidized and holds potential dangers in case of an accident or nuclear waste falls into the hands of terrorists, he said.

Northeast Ohio should jump on promising energy technology, such as manufacturing wind turbines to replace rust-belt industry, Orr said.  

He painted a picture of a rosy future with 200- mile-per-gallon cars or cars powered by fuel cells, which combine hydrogen and water to produce electricity.

Orr showed students what could happen if we don’t make changes, flashing a graphic on the screen showing many coastal areas that would be under water if the 22-foot ice pack on Greenland melts.

Projections once called for that to occur in 1,000 years, but now experts say it could happen in 200 years if nothing is done, he said after the speech.

Al Gore’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech Monday gave a blueprint of the problem and potential solutions, Orr said.
“It doesn’t have to turn out badly,” Orr said. “Small changes sometimes have very big effects.”

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.