Imagine opening your child's take-home reading worksheets to see not simply, "See Jack run. Run, Jack, run!" But rather: "See Jack drill. Drill, baby, drill!"
That's right: the coal, oil and gas industries are paying huge sums of money to place curriculum in American schools that, at best, put dirty energy sources in the best possible light -- and, at worst, offer false assertions about how coal, oil and gas impact the environment and our daily lives.
According to a chilling article in Friday's Washington Post:
These outreach efforts have drawn scrutiny after news in May that Scholastic, the world's largest publisher of children's books, distributed fourth-grade curriculum materials funded by the American Coal Foundation. The "United States of Energy" lesson plan, which the foundation paid $300,000 to develop, went to 66,000 fourth-grade teachers in 2009. After critics raised questions about potential bias, Scholastic announced that it will no longer publish the material in question.
How is that different from letting McDonald's pay educational publishers to push lessons like "The United States of Happy Meals," or inviting Coca-Cola to fund a curriculum called "Our Friend: High Fructose Corn Syrup"?
Talking about coal in a classroom is not the issue here. In fact, I would argue that all American schoolchildren would benefit from lessons about where we get our energy and why it's important to use it wisely. The problem is that Big Coal's "educational" effort is geared towards its own political and financial interests, not an honest and open discussion about energy resources in general.
Meanwhile, solar power and other clean, renewable sources of energy are pushed to the political fringes instead of being discussed in the mainstream. Pay-for-play curricula from the coal, oil and gas companies are part of the problem.
Luckily, there are several organizations working to restore balance. My non-profit organization, SmartPower, is working with some very innovative folks at a Phoenix-based design company called Fisher to promote The Renewables, a team of clean energy superheroes who inform and educate in a fun, interactive way. If you think back to Smokey the Bear, or even MADD, you've already benefitted from the type of educational approach taken by the Renewables.
Programs like the Renewables can help relieve the one-sidedness that still pervades energy attitudes in our country. It frustrates me that even today, in 2011, money is what's doing the talking for teachers and community leaders. As a result, politicians -- and now even school systems and textbook publishers -- are cherry-picking one form of energy over another. Why skip solar, for example? Solar power isn't a political statement -- it's a strong, reliable and available form of energy that should be included in our energy mix not simply because it's good for the environment, but because it creates stable jobs in all 50 states and can help the United States grow its energy portfolio.
There's data to back that up. The Solar Foundation, a non-profit, non-lobbying organization that uses educational outreach, policy research and market transformation strategies to take solar mainstream, just released its most recent National Solar Jobs Census, which shows that solar power is quickly becoming a real driver for jobs and economic security.
From the report:
In general, U.S. solar companies expect to add jobs at a pace that is much faster than the general economy, and are highly optimistic regarding their overall revenue growth over the near term. As of August 2010, the U.S. solar industry employs an estimated 93,000 solar workers - defined as those workers who spend at least 50% of their time supporting solar-related activities. Over the next 12 months, over 50% of solar firms expect to add jobs, while only 2% expect to cut workers. This finding is especially relevant given that the overall expected 12-month growth rate for the entire U.S. economy is only about 2%.
The report also reveals that solar employers expect to increase their number of workers by 26 percent, representing nearly 24,000 new jobs by August of this year. This rate is significantly higher than the expected 3 percent net job loss in fossil fuel power generation. What this tells me is that students should be educated about where present and future career opportunities lie -- and solar clearly fits this bill, even in West Virginia's coal country.
Our energy -- how we get it, and how we use it -- is a valid discussion for our nation's classrooms. But let's not favor one industry over another -- especially not to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Let's even the playing field and include both benefits and drawbacks of all sources of energy.
Brian F. Keane is the president of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization dedicated to promoting clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Keane is a member of the Solar Foundation's board of directors.
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