A couple hundred leaders from academia, politics and business gathered Thursday in Lexington to talk about energy and Kentucky — where we are, where we need to be and how we might get there.
It was the third Energizing Kentucky conference, organized by the universities of Kentucky and Louisville and Centre and Berea colleges. The keynote speaker was Carol Browner, President Barack Obama's assistant for energy and climate change.
First, some bad news:
Coal provides 92 percent of Kentucky's electricity, at some of the nation's cheapest rates. But dealing with coal's environmental problems could raise those costs dramatically, turning a big asset into a big liability.
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Rising power rates will hurt Kentucky, the nation's fourth-poorest state. Kentucky ranks sixth nationally in gross state product from manufacturing, much of which depends on cheap power. We're the nation's third-largest automaker. We produce 40 percent of the nation's aluminum and 30 percent of its stainless steel.
Kentuckians waste a lot of electricity. We have the nation's fifth-lowest power rates, but 20 other states have lower average monthly bills.
Since America first became alarmed about its dependence on foreign oil in the 1970s, that dependence has nearly doubled. Gasoline prices will shoot back up as the global economy recovers and demand increases.
Now, some good news:
Everyone at the conference seemed to be singing from the same song book, more of less. Nobody was saying the solution to our energy challenges is "drill baby, drill" — or "dig Bubba, dig." That's a significant change.
Recent announcements about the state's new role in developing high-tech automobile batteries had everyone in a hopeful mood.
Both Rocky Adkins, a legislative leader who works for a coal company, and Tom Fitzgerald, one of Kentucky's most ardent environmental activists, had mostly good things to say about how state leaders are approaching energy issues.
Gov. Steve Beshear's state energy plan, announced last November, is a progressive document. The first three of its seven points note the need for more conservation and renewable energy. The next three deal with developing more environmentally friendly ways to use coal.
The last point in the state plan suggests reconsideration of Kentucky's ban on nuclear energy, which remains controversial. (To read the energy plan, go to: www.governor.ky.gov and click on the Energy Independence tab.)
"It is, on balance, a sound and thoughtful plan," said Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. "But we have our work cut out for us."
The reality is that Kentucky must continue to rely on coal for many years to come. While the state is investing heavily in research for commercial carbon capture and "clean coal" technologies, they are more dream than reality.
Interesting work is being done by Alltech and other Kentucky companies on bio-fuels. And there's a lot of potential for small-scale solar power, especially for such things as home water heating. Kentucky's rivers could produce a lot more hydro power.
Browner said the keys to energy independence will be developing new technologies and using energy more wisely to create both a strong economy and a clean environment.
"If you look at our history, you can see that we can have both," said Browner, whose previous federal job was heading the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration.
One creative approach is a new public-private partnership called Kentucky's Clean Energy Corps, which state Treasurer Jonathan Miller described as "weatherization on steroids."
The program will use federal stimulus money to create jobs and improve energy efficiency in the homes of 10,000 modest-income Kentuckians. It also will try to engage young people in energy efficiency and conservation efforts.
In a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency, where the conference was held, there were a couple of dozen exhibits of energy-related projects by Kentucky students.
On one side of the room were displays of high-tech research by university students. On the other side were school science projects. Students from Russell High School in Greenup County showed photos of their school's solar collectors. Excited first graders from Hannah McClure Elementary in Winchester told about their recycling campaign.
My favorite was a project from Chenoweth Elementary in Louisville. It was a box lined with aluminum foil and covered with plastic wrap. On a sunny day, the solar-powered oven can cook a s'more in about 15 minutes.
OK, so a solar-powered s'more oven won't do much to solve Kentucky's energy challenges. But the kind of creativity those two fifth-grade girls put into it just might.