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Part 1 of 3: Alternative Power Plants

Published by Janus on July 15, 2008

This is part one of a three part series on alternative energy. In it I discuss the viable alternative sources we can exploit for or urban and industrial electricity demand. In part two I will look at alternative fuels and in part three I will take a peak at more exotic ideas for satisfying our appetite for energy.

There are many important issues facing our country today. One of the most significant problems to the long term economic and environmental future is our dependency on oil. Make no mistake: the American addiction to oil weakens us strategically, indebts us to foreign interests, limits our economic development, harms our environment, and impedes technological innovation. Everyone, be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent, agrees this dependency is a bad thing. What we argue over is the best solution for it.

The plain and simple truth of the matter is that our energy has to come from somewhere. We cannot go back to the stone ages. Even the Amish use gasoline engines. We can’t keep getting our energy from crude oil, but it doesn’t come from the magic oil fairies. Obviously, we need alternatives. Fortunately, we have several. Unfortunately each of them has unique drawbacks. In this series I’ll explore them and offer my suggestions for how to improve our energy situation.

Coal Plants

The United States has the largest coal reserves in the world. More than half of the electricity produced in the country is from coal and coal has been a safe and reliable power source since the industrial revolution. Unfortunately, coal is also just about the most environmentally damaging power source one can imagine. Coal power is estimated to be the second biggest contributor to CO2 emissions and a major factor in acid rain.

Clean coal may be myth, but science is close to providing us with methods of making coal cleaner than ever. The question is: is the energy worth our environment? Democrats would say no, Republicans would say yes.

While I’m not wild on coal, I will say this: We need energy. Coal is a proven and reliable method of getting it. If you object to the pollution of coal plants, create incentives for plant owners to reduce their carbon and sulfur emissions, fund research projects that aim to reduce pollutants, and legislate environmental standards for new and existing plants. To get a coal bill to pass congress, we’ll need to work together with both sides. By creating a passing a compromise bill that addresses both our need for new power and our need for a clean environment, we both win.

The day we’re facing a glut of energy and investors are talking about the “energy bubble” coal will be the first thing we cut. Until then we’re just going to have to suck it up and deal with it.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is even cheaper than coal. It’s reliable and it doesn’t pollute the environment, but when it fails, it fails in a big way. While no deaths or ill health effects have been associated with the Three Mile Island incident, it, combined with the disaster at Chernobyl seven years later, killed virtually all nuclear progress in America. The fear of catastrophic meltdowns or radioactive releases, the question of what to do with spent fuel, and the security concerns of terrorism have prevailed the arguments of the proponents of nuclear power.

Truth be told, there have never been any nuclear accidents in America worse than your average industrial waste spill. Chernobyl, while disastrous, was the direct result of flawed Russian design and unqualified personnel. American reactors have safety factors in place that the Chernobyl plant lacked, not the least of which is a proper containment structure.

The question of safe storage and the threats of terrorism have largely been addressed already. One of the best sources of fuel comes from dismantled nuclear weapons which are already stored in high security facilities. Exhausted salt mines deep under ground and the steps to secure our nuclear facilities since 9/11 offer ways to ensure that these problems are easily overcome.

France, among others, has had amazing success with their civilian nuclear power program which produces over 99% of their domestic power. There is no reason why we cannot follow their example. America needs to begin building more nuclear power stations as soon as possible and congress must do everything they can to encourage more plants while making sure no one starts cutting corners.

Wind Power

Even cheaper, cleaner, and safer than nuclear power is wind turbine power. The problem? Wind is one of those things mankind can’t control and it takes up a lot of room. The hardest part of developing economically viable wind power is finding locations that have ideal weather conditions. To properly harness wind you obviously need a location that has steady and constant winds. When those winds aren’t present, consumers are forced to live off of battery reserves or backup energy sources and there are major costs associated for building the type of massive contingency capacity that would be required for providing electricity to major industrial and population centers.

Despite the challenges we face with its reliability, I think we are right where we need to be with wind. More and more groups are turning to wind and the public is becoming aware of the benefits provided by wind power. My only recommendation for wind would be to resist the urge to get the government involved in it than it needs to be. As more wind farms come online, the only thing that would stop us from incorporating wind into our energy portfolio is excessive regulation.

Solar Power

Solar power, specifically photovoltaic cells, are almost, but not quite, economically viable. In five years, solar panels may well be the cheapest and greenest form of electricity available to us. Today, however, solar energy can only compete on an even footing with other power sources in a few places such as remote areas which require power lines to be built or in places where energy costs are uncharacteristically high.

When the science of manufacturing cells is finally nailed down, I predict photovoltaics will become an explosive cottage industry. As homeowners get the option to put up solar cells on their roofs and not have to pay enormous sums of money every month in energy, they’ll take it.

What are we missing? What are we waiting for? One of two things has to happen before we get to that point. 1) Energy prices have to go up (yes, even more) or 2) photovoltaic cells have to become cheaper. Both are happening on an almost daily basis. When we reach the tipping point, solar power will be a reality – and that tipping point is very, very close.

Yes, that’s the sound of a true believer typing away. No, really. Given what energy prices are going to do in 10 years, I think they’re cost effective now, even if current market prices would disagree with me. The price of a kilowatt hour of power on the grid today is more than the price of a kilowatt hour coming from the sky, but I’d be willing to bet by the time you have to replace them, the solar cells on the market today will have paid for themselves. Electricity is not getting any cheaper, folks.

So what can the government do to speed along the process? I’d recommend making the installation of solar panels on a residence a tax-deductible expense so long as 1) you actually lived there and 2) a cap was placed on the maximum size of the deduction to prevent abuse of the deduction. Then I’d recommend that any profits generated by “home-grown” solar systems tied into the energy grid be tax-exempt up to a reasonable amount. Lastly, I’d recommend grants be given to researchers who are attempting to make solar more cost effective.

Stick around. I’m getting into alternative fuels Thursday and check out even more outlandish sources of energy next week.

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Let’s look at what percentage of our power plants are petroleum based in the first place and I argue that the misconception we are having in America is that the foreign oil is going to the electric power utility generation, when only 7% of power generation in the US is petroleum based:

In 2000 Based on primary energy source, coal-fired capacity represented 43 percent (260,990 megawatts) of the Nation’s existing capacity (Figure 1). Gas-fired capacity accounted for 19 percent (117,845 megawatts); nuclear, 14 percent (86,163 megawatts); renewable energy sources, 12 percent (74,575 megawatts); petroleum, 7 percent (41,017 megawatts); and pumped storage hydroelectric, 3 percent (18,020 megawatts).

 Comment by Joe on October 21, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

Firstly, by claiming that 1.6% of our power generation comes from petroleum (2007 EIA figures are more up to date and far more flattering to your point — I’ll use them just to be fair), while technically correct, you ignore the natural gas component which composes another 21.5% of the power generated. While we can find it independent of crude, natural gas is also a byproduct of crude oil production — and for the record, we import over 4.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas every year.

Secondly, you are only partly right to question commercial energy production as a major contributor for oil consumption. If we look solely at petroleum used to generate electricity in commercial power plants, yes, it would seem like we don’t use much oil to meet our energy needs at first glance.

What you’re forgetting, however, is that if you just look at the fuel sources of commercial electricity generating plants you overlook the vast number of homes that are heated with healing oil, the number of homes that power water heaters and stove-tops with gas, and the vast amount of industry that uses oil to its own furnaces, all of which could be done by substituting electricity for oil products. LNG makes up 10% of our oil consumption and fuel oil makes up another 20%. If we were to replace “home burned” oil products with a cheaper commercially generated electric alternative, we could realize a drop in oil imports immediately.

Lastly, part two of this series deals with alternative fuels. Based on official figures released by the EIA last month, 9,286,000 of the 20,680,000 barrels of petrol per day consumed by Americans is used as gasoline, on top of which an additional 1,622,000 is used as jet fuel. That means that 52% of all oil used in America is used for transportation. I would argue that the transportation sector is as great of a concern for US energy policy and that tackling one problem without dealing with the other will never result in energy independence.

 Comment by Janus on October 21, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

Hi, good post. I have been woondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll definitely be coming back to your site.

 Comment by AndrewBoldman on June 4, 2009 @ 9:55 am

Wind Power is very popular around here. There are several large wind farms within 15 miles and several home owners that produce their own wind power. Thanks for writing about this great energy resource.

 Comment by Way to Go Green on August 7, 2009 @ 10:17 am