Paper without trees, power from old coal mines: the power of innovative thinking

The British psychologist Michael Kirton identified two main styles of thinking, ‘adaptive’ and ‘innovative’. I first learned about his research at a facilitators’ conference in Ottawa some years ago. The session facilitators invited us to self-select into groups – moderate adaptors, high adaptors, moderate innovators, and high innovators.

You would have thought that, as facilitators, we would have avoided the temptation to label others. But not so, at least initially, and that helped me realize how deeply embedded these notions are in our culture. Innovators looked over at adaptors, and thought ‘bean counters’. Adaptors looked at innovators, and thought ‘loose cannons who will shoot a hole in the bottom of the boat’. Of course we soon realized we needed both – someone has to plan the program, and someone has to book the room.

But it still surprises me how these differing styles seem to clash. Innovators often can see subtle signals a long way off, before others do, and their ideas are offered in that context. To those who are used to tweaking, rather than upending, a system, such ideas can seem crazy or unworkable.This seems especially so when we are talking about complicated stories like climate change and environmental protection.

Photo by Courtney Smith on Unsplash

A few of those kinds of stories showed up in my inbox this week. They are about new uses for coal mines and plants, a paper industry without trees, and a meat industry without cows, chickens, or fish as we have known them.

Reprofiled Coal Plants

Adaptive thinking usually involves finding ways to sell more coal and thus keep coal mines open – even though the economic picture for coal is increasingly dire. Innovative thinking involves looking at what else you can do with a coal mine or a coal plant, and this story from Reasons to be Cheerful looks at some examples.

Nanticoke, Ontario: Between 1967 and 2013, Ontario’s Nanticoke Generating Station on Lake Erie was the largest coal-fired power plant in North America, producing nearly as much energy as all of Ontario’s natural gas power plants combined. It was also Canada’s single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2019, it was reopened as a 260-acre solar farm.

Chicago, Illinois: The Homan Square Power House, built in 1905 and decommissioned in 2004, was originally part of the Sears headquarters. After a $40-million conversion using public and private funding,  the power house is now a 460-student charter high school, Power House High, and has sparked new investment in the surrounding neighbourhood.

Lansing, Michigan: The Ottawa Street Power Station closed in 1992 and sat vacant for 20 years until AF Group redesigned it for their corporate headquarters. A range of public financing helped make the $182 million project possible. The insurance company occupied its new offices in 2011, retaining 600 employees and adding 500.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, a hybrid federal agency that merges electricity generation with flood control and economic development in a seven-state region, decommissioned its Widows Creek coal-fired power plant in 2015. Now Google is building a data center on 360 acres once occupied by the plant. 

Generating electricity from methane gas

While it’s not practical to reprofile a coal mine, there are uses for the methane gas that seep out of the abandoned ones. Four such projects operate in the US. In Somerset, Colorado, Tom Vessels has been using methane from the abandoned Elk Creek mine to generate electricity for residents for nine years. This removes 250 billion cubic feet of methane annually — equivalent to taking more than half a million cars off the road for a year.

While generating electricity from renewable sources is cheaper and more efficient, Vessels says the project’s value lies in removing methane from the environment. Coal mining is responsible for about 7% of all US emissions of methane, which has 28 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. California’s cap-and-trade program allows companies to offset their own emissions by supporting projects that capture and remove methane, and Elk Creek makes money from companies in California through that program.

(And of course, that reminded me of an earlier story about how elk were reintroduced to the flattened mountaintops of Central Appalachia, bringing millions in new revenues to some of those states. Other communities had turned their land into sites for solar energy farms, outdoor recreation hubs, industrial parks, and more.) 

Making paper without trees (Reason to be Cheerful)

Washington state forests are valuable from two perspectives – they sequester 35% of the state’s total carbon emissions, and generate $124 million in timber revenues (2018). The state is also America’s third-largest wheat producer and is home to 2.2 million acres of wheat fields. 

John Begley, the CEO of Columbia Pulp, saw that those two things could come together to produce paper from discarded wheat straw, no trees needed. After six years of trust-building with everyone involved, Columbia Pulp built the first tree-free pulping facility in North America in 2019. It will be able to process 240,000 tons of discarded straw. 

It was win-win – the company got raw material for its paper production, and the wheat farmers earned money from something they normally would have thrown out. The farmers used to bale it the straw left over after the harvest, because tilling dries out the soil and causes erosion and burning causes air pollution. But then they had to pay to discard the bales.

Now Columbia Straw Supply buys the straw from local balers, and Columbia Pulp turns it into pulp for paper products. Farmers get a new stream of revenue; the paper industry becomes more sustainable; and the trees that sequester carbon stay intact. Columbia Pulp estimates that replacing 140,000 tons of conventional pulp with straw pulp can save 133,000 metric tons of CO2 per year — as much as is absorbed by 5.8 million trees..

Meat Without Animals

We have gotten used to the idea of meat alternatives – vegetable-based beef, burgers and sausages – for sale in supermarkets and restaurants over the past few years, and we know that widespread switching from actual animals could dramatically change some existing land and water use patterns – not to mention waste disposal, and meatpacking plant labour. 

Now Bloomberg reports that one of the companies, Beyond Meat Inc., may soon add a plant-based version of chicken, which is the most popular meat in the US. And Fast Company reported this week on fish being created from cells in bioreactors that look like they belong in beer breweries.

Plant-based foods can have a much lower carbon footprint. Vox reported last year that an analysis of the Impossible Burger 2.0 found that its carbon footprint was 89% smaller than a burger made from a cow. It also used 87% less water and 96% less land. The arguments for lab-grown salmon are similar – Atlantic salmon are endangered so can’t be caught in the wild; fish farming can pollute the water; and deep-sea trawling may be as carbon-emitting as flying.

These developments grew from people looking into the future, and asking truly innovative questions. One of the men working on the salmon project, a cardiologist, told Fast Company: “I was working on stem cell research when I thought of this question, that’s sort of a strange one: Do we need animals to have meat? Or is it possible to just produce the meat that we consume outside of the animals?”.


Tree-Free Paper Is Saving Forests and Farmers in Washington State. Reasons to be Cheerful, Apr. 27, 2021

Abandoned Coal Plants Are a Huge Opportunity. Reasons to be Cheerful, Mar. 6, 2020

Captured methane can address climate change and offset electricity costs. High Country News, Apr. 27, 2021

How to Restore a Million Acres of Strip-Mined Land? Bring in the Elk. Yes Magazine, Apr. 13, 2019

Many Voices, Many Solutions. Innovative Mine Reclamation in Central Appalachia. Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, 2018.

Beyond Meat Telling Customers Faux Chicken Is Coming This Summer. Bloomberg, Apr. 27, 2021

The salmon in this sushi didn’t come from the ocean—it was harvested from a bioreactor. Fast Company, Apr. 27, 2021