Thursday, August 23, 2012

Power Up

I watched a movie called Brassed Off last weekend. It was the first ever overtly political movie I have ever watched. It’s set in the 80s in a mining town in England. It’s about a brass band and its members, most of whom work in the coal mine. It shows the plight of the townspeople when the colliery is shut down in the name of progress.

The music was wonderful and the performances were remarkable. But apart from it being a great movie it was also (pardon the cliche) a thought provoking one. It made me wonder about all that we take for granted in terms of comforts that we unapologetically demand and expect. Electricity, for instance. Uninterrupted power supply is perceived as a right here. My perception though, always gets a jolt every time I make a trip to India, but I digress...

Other than the name of the company (even that took me a moment) that provides electricity to my home, I barely know anything else about it. From bits of news and reports I hear on the radio about problems with license renewals due to safety violations in a nuclear power plant around here or about yet another rate hike by the energy company, I gathered that most of the electricity produced by the power company is from coal and nuclear plants. Other than that, I have hardly given any thought to where exactly that coal is mined or who mines it. As long as the bills are paid (albeit with a grumble), there is not much interest in it. Now.. why should it be any different from knowing where your food comes from?

So I decided to do some googling:-) and found out that 82% of the electricity produced by the state is from coal. Though I couldn’t quite drill down to the exact location of the mine that provides electricity for my fan ( I guess it doesn’t quite work that way), I learned that there are multiple coal-powered plants spread all through the region that supply to the grid. Though the majority of the energy is produced from non-renewable resources, there are a few wind farms and solar energy facilities that are already in production and efforts are in place to establish many more. Initiatives and goals are set to produce at least 25% of the energy using renewable sources, in another decade or so. Which in turn leads to the unavoidable - the company is closing (or will be in the near future) ineffective and uneconomical coal-powered plants.

Non-renewable resources are exactly that - non-renewable. They are not going to last forever and they take eons to form. So for some time now, there has been interest in harnessing renewable energy like wind and sun to produce energy. All the research and scientific studies that support this is all very commendable. The benefits are for all to see - less pollution and (relatively) less invasive on the landscape. But that is only part of the equation. The rest of the equation is made up of people, policies and politics. How exactly does this transition happen?

Granted it will be a over a period of time. Every generation learns from the mistakes of their predecessors. Development in science and technology gives us the facts and information about how fragile and precarious our environment is. Loaded with the knowledge, we are aware of the damage we do to our environment in the name of progress and realize how imperative it is that we do something to rectify it. Some of us are shortsighted and view it as a compromise for financial growth and security while others look at the long term repercussions of constantly altering the physical structure of our planet. And then there are others, who unfortunately, merely use it for politicking.

The argument here is that every time there is a human being in the equation, everything gets a bit tricky. We cannot be clinical and insensitive to how it affects the people who depend on these energy plants for their livelihood. Most of the people who argue against using non-renewable resources for producing energy don’t rely on it for their sustenance. When a person, a community or a whole town’s economy is dependent on it, then the scales are tipped. How do you choose between providing food and shelter for the people versus preventing anymore damage to the planet (and in turn to its inhabitants)? When generations are trained to earn a living off of it, how can you displace them? How do you provide an ultimatum when it leads to children starving and going homeless?

In the movie, one of the options that the colliery provides the people in the town is a severance package. Understandably, it is such a daunting one for people who have their roots in that small town. Especially when they lack the skills to find another mode of earning when the money runs out. There are mouths to feed and hospital bills to play. And to make it worse, for many that’s the only world they know of. It might be possible for the younger generation to explore new means of living elsewhere, but those that are too old or too set in their ways, what about them? Would educating them sooner about good environmental practices have helped lessen the blow? It might not be feasible for the business to hold every hand until they cross dire straits, but some investment in helping them transition to a different job or skill set might have been more useful and human. After all, you can not just shut down a house like you would a colliery and that’s essentially what they did.

This is a field riddled with skepticism and imbalance and no clear solution in sight. And no, I don’t have any brilliant suggestions either, but the next time I turn a light switch on, the least I can do is learn to acknowledge the unknown faces who actually made it possible. How about you?

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