Between a Rock and a Hard Place

National energy policy has come crashing into America's consciousness due to several recent and sometimes dramatic events. Blackouts in California, high home heating bills and steep prices at the gasoline pump have shocked the public. From many quarters now comes the urgent call for a national energy policy. Yet, opinions are so diverse on how to reach this goal that a comprehensive national energy policy may be far away. The issues are not black and white, and for every argument that a particular energy-production method is most logical, there is a counter-argument against the technology.

Natural Gas Resources

A decade ago, natural gas was considered by many to be the solution for new power generation. Natural gas is much cleaner than coal, is easy to burn, and when combusted, emits much less of the primary greenhouse emission gas and carbon dioxide than coal or oil. The electric utility industry in particular recognized these advantages, and began constructing, to the virtual exclusion of other types of electricity generators, simple-cycle and combined-cycle power plants fired solely with natural gas.


We will need a balanced energy policy that relies on existing technologies with research and funding for new technologies.

An added incentive is that well-maintained and operated combined-cycle natural gas plants perform at almost twice the efficiency of a coal plant. So, for years the demand for natural gas has been rising, but without a corresponding increase in production. The results became clear to much of the public during the winter of 2000-2001 when home heating bills skyrocketed. Now efforts are underway to increase natural gas production, but this is a small part of a long-term energy policy. How long will we be able to rely on natural gas resources? When natural gas runs low for power production, it will also run low for home heating and other purposes. Then what will we do?

Coal Reserves

The rise in natural gas prices has spurred some electric utilities to again examine coal as the fuel for new power plants. The United States still has proven coal reserves to last for several centuries at least. Environmental groups argue that coal is too dirty to use, but in many respects this is not true. Expensive but affordable technologies exist and are in use to control the acid rain gases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. New methods are being tested to control mercury and fine-particulate emissions from coal-fired plants, and these systems should be in place within the next five to ten years. The kicker to the coal combustion issue is carbon dioxide (CO2). Coal produces almost twice as much CO2 as natural gas when combusted. More and more scientific studies indicate that humanmade CO2 contributes greatly to global warming, and that unless we reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the problem will reach a crisis level, perhaps within this century. But, current techno logies make carbon dioxide removal from boiler flue gas prohibitively expensive. So, we run into another rock and hard place.


The rise in natural gas prices has spurred some electric utilities to again examine coal as the fuel for new power plants.

Nuclear Technology

Proponents of nuclear technology claim there will be a resurgence in nuclear power due to the conflicting issues with fossil fuels. They point out that nuclear power does not consume natural resources and does not produce greenhouse or acid rain gases. They also claim that new technology and standardized plant design will provide ultra-safe conditions. For years, nuclear power has been a reliable energy source in France. But, lingering public perception of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, plus the thorny question of nuclear waste disposal clouds the issue of new nuclear plants in the United States. I believe that nuclear proponents will have to come up with some very persuasive arguments to convince the public that this is a safe technology.

Oil Reserves

Energy policy regarding oil is also complicated. We currently depend upon the volatile Middle East for 54 percent of our oil imports. Yet automakers continue to produce -- and people continue to buy -- gas guzzling sport-utility-vehicles and other low mileage automobiles. This is a purely market driven approach that does nothing about oil conservation. The energy crisis and oil embargo of the late 1970s jolted America, and spurred oil conservation efforts and research into new energy-production technologies. However, once the crisis passed, many of these efforts petered out, and until recently one did not hear much about solutions to reduce oil usage. The current administration is pushing for drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Yet, the best estimates suggest that this oil reserve will only provide about five year's worth of supply, and will not be available for a decade. In fact, a U.S. Geologist predicted that at current oil prices, less than one year's supply could be economicall y extracted. Tapping the oil under the ANWR seems like a very short-sighted response to a long-term problem. Is it worth blighting one of our last remaining pristine refuges for a short-term solution?

Any Solutions?

Are there any common sense solutions to these issues? Some clear-minded individuals have said yes in articles and interviews, and I have summarized their ideas below.

First, we will have to depend upon fossil fuels for years to come, and new coal-fired and natural gas-fired plants will be needed. California is the classic example of what can happen when new plant construction is halted while demand continues to rise. But, during this time, we must continue our research into other energy production methods.


But lingering public perception of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, plus the thorny question of nuclear waste disposal clouds the issue of new nuclear plants in the United States.

As with all other technologies, there are both vigorous proponents and pessimists of renewable technologies such as solar and wind power. Given the spectacular technology advances made by humans in the last couple of centuries, I am convinced that with the proper backing, people will find methods to improve the efficiency of solar and wind powered machines to a point where they provide a significant portion of our power. For this to happen, our scientists and researchers need support from far-sighted lawmakers who are willing to invest in these technologies.

Regarding oil, some automakers comprehend the problem and are working on highly fuel-efficient cars. But, these will not sell overnight, and it will almost certainly take more oil price shocks to move the public toward automobile efficiency. Even with oil conservation, we will still have to depend upon imports from the Middle East and other OPEC countries. The geopolitics of this issue are quite daunting, and in this regard we will have to rely on our national leaders.

Nuclear power seems to have a fuzzy future. The arguments that it is a non-greenhouse gas energy source that does not consume fossil fuels are very persuasive. But, I believe it will take an enormous amount of persuasion to convince the public to accept new nuclear units.

The upshot of these arguments is that we will need a balanced energy policy that relies on existing technologies with research and funding for new technologies. As the father of a 16-year-old daughter, I am very concerned about her future and that of all children. I feel we have a moral obligation to solve problems now and not place them on our children's shoulders.

e-sources

The Power Engineering Web site - www.power-eng.com
Hart Energy Markets - www.energy-markets.com
Energy-Tech Online Newsletter - www.energy-tech.com




This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 8, p. 36.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

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