When a system is constrained to bad choices, there is a tendency to bounce from solution to solution, as the drawbacks of each crappy choice become public and the cry goes out for a change. This is where we find ourselves in regards to electric power generation in the United States.
Coal is very, very dirty in terms of carbon, in terms of disposal of ash (fun fact, coal ash is mildly radioactive due to the fact that there is some Carbon-14 in almost all coal) in terms of lives and health lost in acquiring it. Though there is a huge amount of it and it is relatively cheap (as long as you don’t worry about miners lives).
Oil has all the same problems but it is more expensive and we have nowhere near enough of it to make it cheap in any way, shape or form.
Nuclear has been being pushed (side note: as a technophile I love nuclear power, but really something this dangerous should not be as widely used as it is in a country that allows big industry to lobby away safety regulations), but for obvious reasons that is going to have a lot of resistance in the future.
Which leaves us with the last bad solution in the traditional power generation tool box, natural gas. This form of fossil fuel was already getting a bit of a face lift in that it does burn cleaner than coal, though not completely clean in carbon terms, and there are a lot of new reserves of it right here in the United States.
So, the next thing you are likely to hear is that natural gas is the next big thing! Like Orwellianly named “Clean Coal” and supposedly accident proof oil drilling and nuclear power, this is still a bad choice that is likely to be pushed instead of working on renewable alternative energy.
What makes natural gas so bad? It seems like it the best of the options, right? Well it is as long as you don’t take into account the production of it. You see natural gas is all over the place, but you don’t want to be anywhere near the wells.
Not only is it noisy, it tends to really mess up the environment with gas releases. Also the standard practice (part of what makes it less expensive) is hydraulic fracking, which forces water and toxic chemicals (I can’t tell you which ones since the mix is property and not regulated) into the rock formations to break them up and release more gas.
The end result is in the video below:
Here in my home state of Colorado we have had a natural gas boom. Now we have many people who rely on well water have a risk of having their kitchen go boom from contaminated water.
All of this is incredibly frustrating to me. It is not like there are not alternatives that we can turn to in order to reduce our dirty addiction to fossil fuels. One is conservation. Right now in the U.S. only 33% of the electrical power generated is used. The rest is lost to transmission or is grounded out devices plugged in but not running. To give you a comparison, Japan uses 90% of the electricity they generate.
The way our grid is set up and our houses are wired is incredibly inefficient in terms of conserving electricity. Just replacing our outdated and elderly grid system would make a huge difference in the amount of fuel that needs to be burned to generate electricity.
Then, of course, there are alternative sources of electrical power. Most viable right now are two kinds of solar (photovoltaic and concentrated solar power) and wind. If we put the billions in subsidies and loan guarantees that we give to oil and nuclear power in this nation into building power plants with this kind of generation we would have electricity that is clean and at similar cost as the dirty fossil fuel.
The claim about these types of power is they are not baseline generation capable. That is true with photovoltaic and wind. The wind does not always blow, the sun goes away at night. But with concentrated solar power you get around those problems.
Concentrated solar power works by a set of mirrors in a half pipe, focusing the sun on a pipe that runs through the focus. If that pipe if filled with water you get steam for power generation. However you could also fill it with sodium, and it will become molten in short order. Then you store the molten sodium in an underground vault (to keep it hot) and when you want to generate power, day or night, rain or shine, you run some of that sodium through a heat exchanger and generate all the steam you need.
This technology is already active in a couple of plants in California and the Spanish government is going after it in a big way. It does not require any particularly heavy duty safety, it is carbon neutral and if you are really worried about a long dark spell, you can supplement with natural gas for about 5% of generation.
It is time to stop fooling around with a bad set of solutions and go for the ones that will actually make a huge difference. Even if we drill all over the United States and poison the ground water with natural gas and toxic crap, sooner rather than later we will run out. Why pay that high cost when we can do the right thing and transition our electrical generation to ways that do not pollute and make a down payment on fixing our transmission and use problems that require us to produce and throw away more and more energy every year?
The floor is yours.