J500 Media and the Environment

A Tale of Two Energies by acbowman

This post was originally published with an article by our very own Ranjit at Red, Green, and Blue. Check it out.

Coal Chunks

In Holcomb, Kansas, there rages a battle over energy, jobs, and economy.

The Sunflower Electric Company has a plan to build two coal-fired power plants that would produce 1400 megawatts of power. And until the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE),Roderick L. Bremby, denied the application for an air quality permit, they probably would be breaking ground right now.

People in the more populated Eastern part of Kansas, (which is pretty much all powered by coal), want to abandon the coal for sustainable wind energy. For Kansas, wind makes a lot of sense. Wind maps show that we are sitting in a very productive wind energy area. Basically any state in the Great Plains has an abundance of wind at their disposal. And the good news is, there isn’t any waste emissions or land ruining strip mining to harvest this energy.

But what about Eastern and Western States that aren’t sitting on a wind gold mine?

Kenneth Defeyes writes in his book, Beyond Oil, that coal, “is the best of fuels; it is the worst of fuels.”

Coal is cheap. (Not including the environmental costs.) And more importantly, we have the largest reserve in the world. Which means that we aren’t in conflict with foreign countries for our energy. We can dictate the costs.

Coal is the dirtiest of dirty energies. From excavation to consumption, it pollutes. There have been many advances in reducing the amount of mercury and sulfur dioxide emitted by coal plants. But they still contribute to the majority of green house gas emissions in the world. In 2004, 10 billion tons of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of coal. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get rid of the best of fuels worst byproducts?

There has been a buzzword in fossil fuels lately, clean coal.

At the National Governor’s Association annual winter meeting, energy was at the heart of the event. Governors from coal-rich states say it is irresponsible not to have coal in the energy debate. They put a lot of stock in new technologies to curb the emissions from coal. There is a lot of skepticism however, from Governors of renewable energy rich states, and environmentalists.

One clean coal technology already in use is coal gasification. It basically boils the coal into gaseous elements. These can then easily be separated and used for other purposes. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of uses for CO2. However, Basin Electric in North Dakota has found a buyer for their waste.

PanCanadian Petroleum is pumping the gas into porous rock about a mile underground. This forces oil out of the rock. Pumping CO2 into the ground is called carbon dioxide sequestering. Essentially, in this case, it takes a fossil fuel, uses its energy, and then puts back into the ground the useless parts for more fossil fuels. It also extends the life of the oil well.

And if we are ever fortunate enough to wean our selves off of oil, it is estimated that there is enough porous rock not containing oil underground to sequester every bit of CO2 emissions for centuries.

Another new discovery is using re-engineered simple organisms to feed on CO2 and emit methane that can then be used for fuel. Scientists expect this technology to be up and working in about 18 months. However, this may cause more problems than it solves. There is little known about the side effects of genetic engineering. The point is that people are working on the problem because coal may need to be in our future.

In the larger picture of energy, there is no one answer, or even two answers. Wind is a fantastic option, but it won’t work for everywhere. Reducing energy consumption is part of the solution, but in a consumer society, it is a hard sell. Nuclear is potentially catastrophic, plus there isn’t a useful thing to do with the waste. Solar is expensive and not as efficient as we need it to be yet. Coal is cheap, it’s here, and we control it. With new technologies, we may be able to truly clean coal consumption.

The exciting thing is that all these options come with a ton of jobs, and economic growth. So at least that part of the puzzle can be answered. It just comes down to: what do we want to invest in for the future, and what do we have to invest in for the present?


photo courtesy of treehugger


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Very well researched and well told. You are like me: We’re all for job and economic growth. It just seems so near-sighted for many government officials not to realize that seeking an utilizing alternative energy sources will undoubtedly advance our sluggish economy.

With our dependence on foreign oil detrimentally driving the cost of the natural resource up, it is a no-brainer for us to actively seek and utilize alternative sources.

J.J. De Simone

Comment by jjdesimone

In sentence three, “an” should be “and.”

J.J. De Simone

Comment by jjdesimone

Fortunately, no one energy source has to do it all, since we have an advanced technological system (the utility transmission system) that accepts electricity from all of the sources mentioned and combines them to power our economy.

Using more wind, not all wind, is a no-brainer: no air pollution, no water pollution, no greenhouse gases, no mining or drilling for fuel, and no water use.

Thomas O. Gray
American Wind Energy Association

Comment by Tom Gray

Coal is the dirtiest of dirty energies. From excavation to consumption, it pollutes.

In addition to what you have mentioned here, mining of coal is environmentally catastrophic, leveling millions of acres and polluting our rivers and streams. Does “clean coal” technology include a better way to extract it?

I am also a little fearful of pumping CO2 into the ground. It is certainly not without it’s own problems. And once it’s in there, how do we know it won’t find it’s way back out?

– Jeff

Comment by jseverin

I concur with JJ, Jeff, and Mr. Gray. There are many opportunities to stimulate our economy, wean ourselves off foreign oil, and forge a cleaner, greener future for ourselves through the use of alternative fuel sources. Clean coal is really an oxymoron. Does it reduce carbon impacts? Yes. Is it worth it to pour money into coal technologies rather than exploring and funding significantly clear alternatives?

The Department of Energy (and I) don’t think so. From Scientific American:

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it has canceled plans to build a prototype 275-megawatt power plant, its first so-called FutureGen facility, in Mattoon, Ill., which was designed to burn coal to produce electricity, and then sock away 90 percent of the resulting climate change–causing carbon dioxide safely underground.

Amid spiraling costs due to rising prices for concrete and steel, among other factors, the DOE said it was pulling the plug to save money and to restructure the agency’s clean coal effort to be less centralized and more effective.

Many experts believe that truly clean coal-fired power plants, coupled with such carbon capture and storage systems, offer one of the best hopes of keeping global greenhouse warming at bay in coming decades. But green energy watchers always suspected that the government was not ready to pony up the necessary billions it would take, including the ballooning $1.8-billion estimated budget for FutureGen, which many environmentalists charged was a mere payoff for the politically connected coal industry.

Kansas has the third largest wind capacity in the US. There is so much money to be made from this resource if we invest now. Patience is required.

Comment by j500

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