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It’s a shame how the media still bombards us with the bad news about acid rain. Not. That is so last century. And the reason we were able to curb that problem was that the Clean Air Act instituted a cap and trade system on sulfur. Utility companies analyzed the sulfur content of coal they had contracted to buy, and if it was high, they used that as a reason to void the contract and buy lower sulfur coal elsewhere, thus enabling themselves to sell their sulfur credits on a cap and trade market. It worked beautifully.

Sure, some coal companies fought the future: spread the idea that acid rain was a myth and that limits on sulfur would break the back of the coal industry. Sound familiar? But Arch Coal, headquartered in St. Louis, understood the futility of that course of action. The company dithered over whether to invest in the Powder River Basin, which had low sulfur coal that was easy to extract. Eventually, the leadership decided to make that heavy capital investment. It embraced the future instead of fighting the legislation, and that has paid off. Arch is now the number one domestic coal producer and, worldwide, the number two producer.

Tom Appelbaum, who was a coal geologist when all that was taking place, has since become a lawyer and is working with MAAEP–Missouri Association of Accredited Energy Professionals. Speaking recently at the Creve Coeur Township Democratic Club, he explained that not only will Cap and Trade work to reduce carbon emissions just as a similar system reduced sulfur emissions, it will also, like that older program, reward the forward looking companies–as well as reduce our long term energy costs. Coal companies that put money into wind turbines now and oil companies that invest in solar power will reap dividends later. Mass production, whether you’re talking solar cells or Model Ts, reduces the cost of production per unit. But first, that initial heavy capital investment has to happen.

Appelbaum applied that same lesson to a new kid on the clean energy block: highly efficient fuel cells being produced by a Silicon Valley company, Bloom Energy. Some of the heaviest hitters in the corporate world–FedEx, Wal-Mart, Staples, eBay and Google–have bought and used them in the last eighteen months. The Bloom Boxes will be available to businesses and homeowners as a way to cut energy costs in half and take themselves off the energy grid.

Sridhar [Bloom’s CEO] said the box is mostly a collection of fuel cells that use oxygen and fuel to generate electricity without creating any emissions. Oxygen is drawn into one side of the cell, while a fuel, such as a natural gas or bio-fuel, is drawn into the other side. The two combine within the cell and produce a chemical reaction that creates energy without any burning or combustion.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Sridhar said that he’s hoping to see Bloom Boxes become a common fixture in backyards and basements within 10 years. He estimated the cost of systems for individual homes at about $3,000.

Pretty exciting, right? Yes, though, like all the other clean energy alternatives, it will require that heavy initial investment. So Appelbaum foresees that the cost of dealing with climate change and weaning ourselves off foreign oil will be steep at first but that it will flatten out over time. Eventually alternative sources will:

“drive energy costs down. Dramatically. Now, in the interim, if there is an increase in energy costs, we’ve got thirty percent in our back pocket, and it’s called energy efficiency.

And that’s where MAAEP comes in. It is an association of professionals, a trade group consisting of private enterprise, non-profits and government agencies that mean to encourage energy efficiency upgrades in Missouri homes and businesses while making sure that the standards in this burgeoning business remain high.

Appelbaum’s assertion that we could save thirty percent on our energy costs is impressive. MAAEP intends to make more Missourians aware of that possibility and to show them how to get help paying for it. More on all that in the next posting.