Earlier this week, a comparative news story on the Presidential campaign was presented on the PBS Newshour which provides one of the best metaphors for what this campaign is all about. Governor Romney was speaking in front of a group of coal miners in West Virginia, while President Obama was in Iowa talking about the wind energy success of the second most prolific state behind Texas on this clean energy source. Romney was talking about the veracity of coal while Obama was espousing on the growing success of wind energy as one of the alternative energy solutions we must embrace.
While in abundance in the US, coal energy has historical been one of the worst contributors to toxins in the environment and has hastened the impact of global warming. Coal energy in the US is about 50% of our energy sourcing and the US is responsible for 1/4 of the greenhouse gases in the world. EPA passed additional limitations in 2011, which will tighten the requirements around mercury and other toxic emissions, which will save an estimated 17,000 lives per annum. Since coal is still such a huge part of energy delivery, we cannot divorce ourselves quickly from it, but we need to deminimize coal as a solution. To the industry’s credit, it has developed an enhanced coal gasification process, which does not burn the coal, but converts it into a synthetic gas (syngas) of carbon monoxide and hydrogen which is then burned to create steam to turn the turbines and generate the electricity. Some of the by-products of this gasification process can be used in other products.
The industry calls this “Clean Coal,” yet a better name would be “Cleaner Coal.” Coal still has to be mined, cleansed and transported, so that process will create toxic emissions, use an abundance of water and cause leakage. Plus, mountain top mining, is horrible for the environment and aesthetics for the region. On the back side, emissions are captured, but containment of the by-products not used or being stored for future use are not a perfect science and issues result. However, compared to the older forms of burning coal or previous methods of coal washing or scrubbing, gasification is a much cleaner approach. So, we clearly need to migrate in that direction as we diminish the use of coal altogether.
However, other countries are far ahead of us on their cleaner eco-energy strategies. China and Germany lead the pack, with the US a distant third. The US success has been more a confederation of good ideas, but we truly need to do something similar to what China or Germany has done. China has had a series of five-year plans to move toward “Cleaner Coal” and alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Coal is in abundance in China as in the US. Germany is ten years ahead of the US and plans to be 80% alternative energy fueled by 2030 and that does not include nuclear energy. Countries like Brazil, Spain and Denmark also have definitive alternative energy success based on plans that have lived beyond the terms of office of the original leaders.
Per John Hofmeister, the former President of Shell and Director of the Citizens for Affordable Energy in Washington, if the US does not formalize a long term eco-energy plan, we will become a third world energy power. That is a bold statement and is a call to action. We need a plan that will be bi-partisan and based on unbiased data. As an example, the clean coal websites advocate their model over the natural gas developers who advocate their model over the oil companies who want to drill baby drill. These industries are at best subjective and at worst biased. They each have a vested interest in the outcome. So, we need to move forward with what is in the best interests of the country and planet, which provides eco-friendly and cost-effective energy. When jobs are thrown in, in the documentary “Powering our Planet” narrated by Dr. Richard Alley, a noted climate change and glaciologist at Penn State, there are quite a number of jobs to be had in alternative energy delivery. So, jobs need not be an either/ or issue, as it is more about the types of jobs than the number.
As noted earlier, the US has had success at the community and regional level, which is justified by its third place ranking on alternative energy use. Texas provides 1/3 of the wind energy in the country and could do more. In addition Iowa, California, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon all are significant contributors. In total, there are 38 states which provide wind power. And, 1 megawatt of wind energy provides 2600 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions than 1 megawatt of traditional coal energy.
And, solar energy is on the rise. In addition to Germany’s success, in Seville, Spain, there are three solar plants powering 20,000 households. In Morocco, a company called DesertTech is moving in a direction to power 20% of Europe by 2050 with solar power. The cost of solar power has become even more efficient being reduced from $9 a watt to $3 a watt. There is a belief it can be reduced to $1 a watt in the near future. In the US many of the solar successes are very targeted and local, yet the technology is replicable. NC is the third most prolific solar state and companies that can retrofit houses and businesses are growing rapidly.
Steven Chu, our Secretary of Energy, is correct to say our strategy need not be limited to one avenue – there is wave/ tidal power and biomass in addition to wind and solar and other forms. However, we need both political parties to sit down and develop a long term plan. This plan has to live beyond the terms of the incumbents. We need to move away from fossil fuels in a strategic, but accelerated fashion. Cleaner Coal is not a panacea, but it is much better than the alternative. Natural gas is a short-term option, but fracking is known to cause issues and uses a bucket load of water. I mention the use of water as our plans must be holistic, as water is the new oil and we have to be very careful about how we use it. There are fights in Kansas over water between farmers and frackers as of this writing.
I have been very clear in earlier posts about my greatest concern if the GOP carries the White House. The GOP is being heavily funded by these aforementioned fossil fuel industries, so their data and judgement are in question. To continue to deny global warming is an example of this questionable judgement. Obama, while having success with better mpg requirements on cars and advocating alternative energy, could do even more. So, the metaphor of the campaign paints a very clear picture – we can get in bed with the coal and other fossil fuel industries or we can look to the best path forward which is one that increasingly is powered by alternative energy, but is ever mindful of the role cleaner coal and natural gas play as they are diminished as sources. And, we should embrace the key role energy conservation plays in our overall strategy.