The Midwest and South have become the Colossus of Carbon: coal-dependent, with resistance to climate change legislation from the left and the right. Progressives from the region are caught in a dilemma: despite wanting to fight global warming and usher in a green economy, they know that these initiatives act against their region’s economic interests. Placing a price on carbon in a state like Ohio, which gets 86 percent of its electricity from coal, hurts its citizens more than those of, say, California, which gets only 1 percent of its electricity from coal.
Then too, the region wonders how “green,” as it’s currently defined, will mix with its notorious rust. Every dollar of GDP created in Ohio requires the emission of 37 percent more greenhouse gases than the US average, which will make it hard to compete in a green system. Wind and solar, which make sense in the West and on the coasts, are a tough sell in the Midwest, with its relatively placid, gray skies. Even green jobs, which have made a splash elsewhere, cannot keep up with the state’s hemorrhaging employment rates. When the Obama administration doled out tax credits for jobs in “advanced energy manufacturing” in early January, Ohio got seven projects–more than most other states. But these are minuscule compared with the nearly 1,200 work sites and almost 107,000 manufacturing jobs the state has lost in the past two years.
The Midwest and the South do have an abundant supply of untapped, low-cost, low-carbon power–it just hasn’t been defined as green yet. The solution to some of the woes of nineteen of these states can be found right in their high-carbon infrastructures: old manufacturing plants, municipalities and agricultural produce waste energy that can be profitably “recycled” onto the grid to create power as clean as that from solar and wind but far cheaper. In fact, energy now lost as steam and gases by the region’s manufacturing plants, as well as municipal and agricultural waste, could create as much energy as sixty-nine nuclear power plants, according to figures commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency. This power could strengthen the region’s electrical grid and preserve jobs by making local manufacturing plants more economically stable, while making the region a leader in greener technology. But in order to accomplish this, and steer that potential through the maze of financial and regulatory barriers that currently encourage waste, we’ll need to create a federal regional stimulus program, a Clean Power Authority somewhat analogous to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Smokestacks are the Pyramids of the Rust Belt, both product and symbol of how we built our modern economy on cheap energy. “Fly” over the state of Ohio on Google Earth and you’ll find smokestacks ringing its old industrial cities and towns. They stretch high above the 1,600-degree furnaces at Toledo’s Libbey Glass. Not far from downtown Cleveland, the massive ArcelorMittal steel mill injects steam and excess heat into the sky in long plumes. In Cincinnati, puffs of vapor hover above the chemical manufacturer Cognis Corporation.