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Shifting to an Alternative Vision

story by Guy Spriggs

English professor and writer-in-residence Erik Reece has expressed his views on the coal industry and energy policy in Kentucky in such works as his 2006 book “Lost Mountain.” He also believes the University of Kentucky has an opportunity to effect positive change and become a more energy-responsible institution.

Reece understands the influence of coal in Kentucky, but feels that the effects coal has on Kentucky’s environment and local economies are largely overlooked.  “It’s a very cheap source of energy because there’s so much of it, but the problem is that people aren’t factoring in the true cost of coal,” Reece said.  “We’re not paying for the externalities in terms of all the dirty water, the toxic air, the deaths due to coal truck drivers.  The health cost is devastating.”

Because of Reece’s experiences as a writer, environmentalist and Kentuckian, he believes that the way to the future is an energy portfolio that doesn’t include coal.  “I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s going to end next year.  But it would be nice to see an ideological and philosophical shift toward the realization that the entire world is going to have to be off of coal in 20 years.”

“I think UK has a responsibility to Eastern Kentucky, and part of that responsibility is helping put in place a green collar economy, creating jobs around alternative energy,” Reece said.  UK can play a major role as the state’s flagship university, Reece says, by helping to plan for what the post-coal economy is going to look like.

While Reece continues to promote a greater focus on sustainable energy research at UK, he sees new endeavors such as the Solar House and materials recycling as a step in the right direction, encouraging more research of that variety.  But changes in UK’s energy policies won’t come about only as a result of new research, Reece explains.  “There is a lot of movement from the faculty and from the students, and that’s where it’s going to have to come from.”

UK’s English Department has responded by increasing the Writing Program’s emphasis on sustainability and Appalachian Studies.  The goal, Reece says, is to emphasize writing as an act of citizenship and as a way of taking responsibility for one’s actions, which includes taking responsibility for the way one consumes resources.

Moving forward, Reece sees several steps UK can take to improve the university’s energy use, starting with a pledge to not burn any mountaintop removal coal and signing on to the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment.  Most important, however, is the development of a more coherent energy policy. 

“We need to lay it out and say that these are our goals and this is how we’re going to achieve more energy efficiency. All students, faculty and staff need to know what that policy is and what part they might play in it.”