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    Bring On the Living Coal Plants

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: AZPA

    There are currently plans afoot in Germany to wrap an ugly, industrial behemoth of a coal plant in gorgeous "living walls"—the kind of green, vine-covered surfaces that are en vogue in the sustainable design world right now. What you're looking at above is the proposed concept for a coal plant owned by Vattenfall, one of Europe's largest energy companies. Treehugger's Lloyd Alter calls it "greenwrapping": an attempt to veil a polluting monstrosity behind a pleasing aesthetic sheen.

    That's what the designers may intend to do, and it's certainly what the coal company has in mind: If you think a coal plant looks cool, and it makes an interesting contribution to a city's look and feel, you'll be much less inclined to hate it—and to call for its ouster. Which makes sense as a defensive measure, as more and more people are rallying to shut down coal plants, since they are the number one driver, worldwide, of global climate change. They also emit deadly pollutants and cause asthma and all-around suck, too. 

    AZPA, a London and Barcelona-based architecture firm, thinks that it can conceal this fact: 

    This project is aimed at providing Vattenfall with an aesthetic manifestation of a new integration between manmade processes and the natural environment. It would be a mistake for the facilities to appear as industrial facilities, emphasising their artificiality through the use of steel and concrete and sharp geometries. On the contrary, our proposal gravitates around the possibility to make the the artificial as close as possible to the natural, by designing an envelope for the Wedel Vattenfall plant which will appear as continuous with nature

    The firm also claims that the green walls, comprised of creepers, or vines arrayed in a "corrugated envelope" could "absorb a substantial part of the carbon emissions of the plant." This is a heaping load of B.S. Perhaps if you replace "a tiny, minuscule fraction" with "substantial" that sentence is passable. But coal plants spew out such ghastly amounts of CO2 that you'd have to run their emissions through a rainforest to see a "substantial" absorption rate. 

    But here's the thing—I think these plans will backfire. I think the designers', and the coal company's logic is flawed. Here's why: the only thing saving coal plants right now is that most people don't ever think about them. There's a reason that we've quarantined them to our cities' outer limits and rural boonies, where the only people that have to deal with them are poor people with no political influence, employees, and execs that profit from the whole steaming mess. 

    The minute you make a coal plant into a beacon, the minute you draw attention to it, the more endangered it becomes. This is especially true in educated, environmentally aware, and socially activist populations like Germany—this is the nation that took to the streets to ban nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima, remember.

    If your population a) understands the threat of climate change and b) gets that CO2-belching coal plants are the primo cause, then erecting the equivalent of a giant banner that says 'Hey, folks, look how much global warming pollution our plant spits out! Enough to make an entire vine-covered skyscraper-sized building bloom!' might not win you any converts. Anytime someone has to ask, 'Why is that coal plant covered in vines?' and the answer is, 'oh, because it emits a crapload of planet-warming gases' coal loses.

    Unless, of course folks don't understand how climate change works. Which means that right now, slapping pretty green walls on smokestacks might yet serve the coal industry's agenda here in the states. This is a place where tens of millions of people agree with the nation's top Republican when he says "the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical." So yeah—the ooh pretty effect might actually fool Americans. Luckily for us, our coal companies are entirely unwilling to spend an extra cent to clean or green their operations if they're not forced to by law—so bring on the living coal plants, I say. Let's see what happens.