Risk and Reward in Electrical Generation

                                                                                The blog www.getpluggedin.com has this posting and people can leave questions or comments there.

Where does energy production stand today?  There is a push for “renewable, carbon neutral” power.  Generally that refers only to solar and wind.

With a booming economy and a government that will advance the “save us from global warming” philosophy, large industrial wind turbines began going up across the land.   Not everyone considered these “green”.   Plus, the cost
benefit ratio was probably very high.  Arguments for the turbines included “we’ve used them for years (yes, but mostly in mechanical applications and not large scale); they worked in Denmark (totally different country which
may not be as in love with them as we were told), etc.   When the US economy declined, cost-effectiveness, job generation, subsidies for turbines were all called into question.  Plus, people started to learn more about the
manufacturing processes (some quite toxic) and the number of turbines and amount of land required to create enough electricity to keep switches “instant on”.

Solar had much the same problems.  Land usage was enormous and the amount of electricity produced quite small.  Solar was more predictable and quiet, making it less intrusive.

Hydro power requires moving water—there are obvious limits to this. Currently, there is talk of combining wind and hydro, using turbines to move water uphill when the wind is very strong or the grid is not able to accept the electricity, then running the water down to a second reservoir through a hydroelectric plant.  This means we require two forms of renewable energy, twice the cost perhaps and large land areas without multiple use.  This is quite new so time will tell if it is worth $2.2 billion dollars for three such facilities (one estimate I found).

Geothermal does not get as much attention as other sources.   It is used but limited by the location of the geothermal resources if used on an industrial scale.

Other ideas include using ethanol, biomass, methane from landfills—all have unique benefits and shortcomings.  None are carbon neutral.

Coal was the dominant fuel for producing electricity for a long time--abundant (in spite of claims to the contrary) and cheap.  We have large quantities of coal in the US so we would not be dependent on another country for the fuel.  The downside is coal is very dirty.  Besides the air pollution, there are the tons (literally) of ash left from the coal burning.
Efforts have been made to make coal burn cleaner by adding scrubbers, but so far coal remains very dirty.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, but still produces CO2.  Huge quantities of natural gas have been discovered in the last few years in America and there is research into whether natural gas can be replenished through the use of microbes from coal bed methane water.  If we can “regrow” the natural gas, the problem of renewable no longer exists if production can meet demand.  Natural gas can also be used to power automobiles, after modifications to the vehicle. There exists resistance to drilling for gas in many areas and others argue that since natural gas is not carbon free,
it will not save the planet.

Then there’s nuclear power—efficient, carbon neutral at least as much as turbines and solar panels.  Sadly, at the end of WWII, nuclear “power” translated to “nuclear bomb” and thus instilled a terror in much of humanity over radioactive materials.  Protests of nuclear power were common.  Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Japan’s earthquake all fueled the fear and the media fanned the flames.   After the earthquake in Japan, there has been a huge backlash once again.  One must occasionally wonder if global warming would have even been an issue had we built power plants and not a bomb.  This is not to say nuclear is not without danger, but without the public panic and relentless pounding by the media about the dangers, a different world might exist.

And thus we arrive at risk assessment.  How much danger are we willing to tolerate to keep those lights on?  This is very difficult to evaluate in the US, since your lights ARE on.  Perhaps a few weeks in the Philippines with their “brownouts” (blackouts, actually) would help.  If we saw what a future without adequate electricity looks like, would our tolerance level change? Would we ask questions and do research of the efficiency and cost of various types of electrical power generation?   Would we lobby for more facts and figures and less politics?

The climate minister of England recently told the British citizens that the days of getting electricity on demand were soon to be over.  Do we wait for that announcement here or do we start now asking the hard questions?  This
blog is a start.  It’s time to figure out our attitudes and where we want to be.   If we need to follow a different path, let’s get started before the decision is made for us or before the wrong path is chosen.