Thursday, March 22, 2012

Can technology Save us: Energy Problems

Energy is one of our largest concerns moving forward. We know, at least on some levels, that the technology that is feeding us power isn't exactly the cleanest technology or power sources. For the most part, the US is powered through coal and natural gas. Between these two roughly two thirds of our power is generated. Both of these power sources need to be extracted from the ground. There are several ways to extract coal from the earth, those of us from Pennsylvania know of both of these. The first is the old fashioned digging of huge mines. In some cases these mines catch on fire and can burn continually until all the coal is burned through. This can take decades or centuries. Not only that, but if you've seen ads or the show Coal on Discovery, you know that it's horribly unhealthy for the miners and can lead to black lung. The other method is mountain top removal, which is less well known but equally destructive. According to a recent study it has removed 500 peaks and eliminated 2,000 miles of streams in the Appalachia mountain range.

Natural gas extraction is equally destructive, but it's talked about less frequently than mountain top removal. Fracking has been banned in several countries and regulation in US states has been mixed (Ohio very strict PA very lax). However, the US is being compared to Saudi Arabia in terms of the quantity of Natural Gas in the ground (these estimates are highly contested). Because of the abundance natural gas is being touted as the clean alternative to coal. While it is true that natural gas does burn cleaner than coal it still is not a clean reaction. As it is a hydrocarbon molecule it's reaction does not lead to 100% efficiency and only water as a resultant material. It still produces Carbon DiOxide but at a much lower rate than coal or gasoline (benzine).

While it is strongly debated among politicians the use of coal and natural gas are causing climate change (Obama compared them to Flat Earth Society members), it's fairly obvious that they cause local pollution levels to increase. However, as we saw from the Iceland volcano ash and other pollutants are able to enter the jet stream and move around the world. This same affect can happen with coal and natural gas power plants.

However, as technology caused a great deal of these problems perhaps it can fix them. One of the first technologies that we should look at is captured carbon sequestering (CCS), which I've discussed before. This could help remove the excess carbon in the atmosphere now. However, there are risks it does reduce housing values and can leak to the surface in a similar manner as smoke from a coal fire. However, there has been success in countries like Iceland. While this is small scale, its the appropriate level to be testing in the US. There are several different technologies for CCS and many states in the US could experiment with different technologies. This will allow the selection of the best technology. The US government should encourage testing different technologies through programs at the state level to designed to increase testing different technology. This could include highest capture and lowest leakage rate from the captured location. Companies could then bid on the right to use their technology for the projects. Additionally, as this can be tied to economic benefits such as job creation and pollution reduction, without impacting current power production, it should gain bipartisan support.

Io9 recently had an interesting article about using caves as a method for batteries. This technology, while very very young, would be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and wave (when that matures more). This would allow for a massive storage area for extremely windy or sunny days to effectively smooth the energy production for a region. In addition it also could be used to buffer from over production for traditional power plants as well. It is difficult to plan for excess demand, but if these caves could be used to store energy from a colder time of the year until the summer it could be used to buffer against increased demand during the hot summer months.

Renewable energy sources must be part of any plan to create a national energy plan for any country. Without these energy independence would be impossible. Creating incentives for home owners and removing barriers, such as home owner associations that are against solar panels, should be a goal of government at several levels. Austin currently has a huge push for renewable energies where something lie 35% or more of the city energy needs should be generated by renewables in 2020. Including individual home owners in this plan will make it easier to reach.

Finally, nuclear reactors will also be required for wide area energy generation. Currently nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20% of US energy production. Developing safer techniques for nuclear energy generation is extremely important with Fukashima and the risk for using the same technology for creation nuclear weapons. Fortunately there are safer materials to use. One of them is called Thorium. This material reacts more safely and cannot be used to create weapons. This type of reactor would also be extremely useful for desalinating water.

To achieve true energy independence we will need to use all of the available materials for energy production. It will likely require a transition period from coal to natural gas to a combination of renewable energy sources and nuclear reactors. This will likely take 20 to 30 years. However, we need to use economic and national security as much as environmental concerns to win the argument. With the current mentality in the US government environmental arguments are not likely to win over many converts. Using job creation, through construction and managing the facility, and the long term economic benefits will likely win over more converts than any other method. Including in the argument a way to capture the pollution as a method of reducing pollution rather than simply require cleaner burning is also likely to win over converts as the GOP tries to defund the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is likely to be a difficult fight to get the US to be independent of foreign energy sources, but it is possible. To do so will require a clear plan of action. Sadly, the US has been lacking that for the past few decades.

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