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Thursday, March 11, 2010 01:01 am

The Heartland needs more than hope

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Hope from the Heartland, a new book by Jay Hoffman, the Democratic state representative from Collinsville, starts with the premise that climate change, the energy and economic crises can be solved simultaneously. “We can retool our industrial base using new technology, take advantage of our abundant natural resources, and create new jobs while replacing our old lackluster economy,” Hoffman writes.

Hoffman breaks his argument down into three parts, first illustrating the magnitude of the problems facing the Midwest. Energy security, the evacuation of manufacturing and the looming threat of climate change all come from the same problem, which is a lack of leadership and strategy.

A tour of solutions follows, all of which can be found in the nation’s heartland, he argues. The book describes the latest advancements in biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, hydrokinetic and nuclear sources of power. The emphasis is that there is no one silver bullet, and the nation requires a patchwork of diverse solutions. An abundance of natural resources, a robust transportation network, a brain trust of universities and an able workforce give the Midwest a unique advantage in a green energy revolution.

In the latter part of the book, Hoffman advocates personal responsibility to reduce energy consumption and to conduct an audit to weed out inefficiencies at home. On a larger scale, he calls for higher standards on building efficiency and revamping the electrical grid to allow people to adjust their consumption depending on how much the grid is being taxed.

Proceeds from the book, only available at www.hopefromtheheartland.com, fund scholarships and environmental and sustainable-energy programs at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey.

As important as the book’s topic is, it doesn’t make for an entertaining read. Hoffman makes his points in a fact-filled, armchair expert manner that drags the reader down, but that’s not Hoffman’s biggest mistake. The chapter devoted to “clean coal” ignores toxins unleashed in mountaintop removal, the destruction of the landscape from longwall mining, and other environmental costs. Readers are left to believe that America should continue its coal habit because, like a tobacco habit, a filter has been placed on the tip.

Hoffman advocates the removal of traditional boundaries to form private/public partnerships, using public money to fund clean coal research at public universities. The fruits of that research would be handed to the coal and utilities industries, along with government incentives to apply the technology and meet emissions standards. Yet, despite 30 percent of greenhouse emissions coming from transportation, he offers no help to the auto industry, writing, “it is time that they help us meet the nation’s climate and energy challenges.” This begs the question why the public should give any handouts to any private, profit-seeking interests that refuse to change on their own.

The greatest strength in Hope from the Heartland is not individual prescriptions, but the idea that Midwestern states need to join forces on a comprehensive energy plan. “Unless the Heartland begins acting as a single economic entity with common interests, our economic progress will continue to falter,” Hoffman writes. “A united front will enable the Midwest to lead the nation toward energy independence, increased security and self-sufficiency.”

Many of his points have been discussed before. Development, manufacturing and construction of wind and solar farms in the Midwest is not a new proposal. Using the land to harvest corn, soybeans and agricultural byproducts for ethanol and biofuel production has been debated. Overhauling the nation’s archaic and inefficient power grid borrows from other books. But it’s notable when a politician spends one and a half years to write a 234-page book, especially on something as politically sticky as energy policy.

Matthew Schroyer is an independent journalist based in Springfield, where he grew up. He enjoys blogging about political events, natural disasters, music and journalism. He can be reached at mschroyer@gmail.com.

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