Systems Integration

Clean Power Regs Complex But Within Grasp

China's Not Afraid of Better Technology Benefits and There's no Need for Coal Rollers

By Paul Studebaker

 My children love the Hesston Steam Museum, a collection of vintage trains and tractors, a sawmill and other large ferrous contraptions from a bygone time on the Indiana-Michigan border. We used to visit it regularly on Hesston Steam Days, when they fire it all up. A large black cloud of coal smoke can be seen and smelled from miles around, but what the hey, that's how it was, and we like it.

So the other day, when I pulled up at a stoplight behind a well-used Ford pickup, I recognized the smell — unburned hydrocarbons with the emphasis on carbon — before I noticed the source, which was a rather odd six-inch stovepipe rising through the bed behind the cab. I thought perhaps the young driver had retrofitted an alternate means of propulsion, maybe using a renewable fuel like wood pellets, organic peat or perhaps dried cornstalks. But when the light changed, the roar was distinctly diesel, as was the pungent black cloud from the top of the stack.

The driver is apparently participating in a novel practice called "rolling coal,” where owners modify their diesel-powered pickup trucks to exhaust, on demand, unburned fuel as soot in a form of protest against environmentalism, pollution controls and air quality regulations. They've formed Internet support groups where they post videos of their trucks enveloping cars behind them in clouds of black smoke that they call "Prius repellant.”

I have no issue with coal rolling by steam museum curators — it's important to understand the world we've left behind and why, and Hesston Steam Days are fun, but leave little doubt. I also own and operate several cars and motorcycles (none of them Prii) that, by modern standards, not only pollute the air, but also regularly endanger my physical existence. What the hey, I like them.

I even understand, though I no longer condone, the common practice of disabling or removing emission controls on modern machinery when they significantly compromise performance. Such controls are poorly engineered or executed patches on outdated technology. I say fix the technology.

They post videos of their trucks enveloping cars behind them in clouds of black smoke that they call "Prius repellant.”

 But protesting environmentalism by deliberately wasting energy and generating noxious emissions? That sounds like the action of someone who doesn't like or understand or think they can afford cleaner, more efficient technology — someone who's afraid of change. 

I also get that impression from my friends at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which recently issued a statement condemning the EPA's Clean Power Plan. The plan will "kill more than 150,000 good jobs, while having a minimal effect on global greenhouse emissions,” says IBEW.

U.S. EPA estimates that the Clean Power Plan will encourage utilities to shutter more than 40 gigawatts of coal-generated power by 2020. IBEW says, "Shutting down dozens of coal plants in a short amount of time makes it difficult for utilities to keep the power on during bouts of extreme weather like last winter's polar vortex system.”

So rather than having its highly in-demand, skilled electrical workers relocate to modern industries that minimize environmental risk, IBEW would have us continue rolling coal. They say if we don't burn it, China will. But even China knows coal emissions must come down and is moving quickly as it can to alternative and renewable power.

The Clean Power regulations and methods for meeting them are complex and technical, but well within the grasp of folks who can make a coal-fired power plant run reliably, or modify the computer-controlled fuel system of an F-350. China's not afraid of the benefits of better technology, and there's no need for coal rollers or the IBEW to live in fear of Prius-driving, EPA environmentalists.