Monday, September 20, 2010

Burning Coal, Burning Cash, Burning the Future

by Jim Reynolds

I finally got around to reading the Summer 2010 issue of The Catalyst, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, of which I am a member. An article titled Burning Coal, Burning Cash was fascinating. I liked it so much, I stole the title for use in this piece. The article presents data that show that North Carolina exported $2.3 billion in 2008 to purchase coal for its coal-fired power plants, more than any other state, except Georgia, which spent $2.6 billion. Eight other states spent more that $1 billion to import coal from other states and abroad, several of which are already coal mining states.

The frightening thing is that $2.3 billion doesn’t begin to cover the actual cost of coal-fired power in North Carolina. Our federal tax dollars support attempts to clean up the messes left behind. I’m talking about messes like air pollution. To paraphrase the article, the National Academy of Sciences discovered that, in 2005, air pollutants from coal-fired power plants in the United States caused more than $62 billion in damage. Most of this damage is attributed to the premature deaths of American citizens, mainly through lung and heart disease. The Southeast has the highest rate of air pollution-related deaths in the nation.

I’m talking about messes like the dispersal of soot and heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and lead out of the smokestacks and across our landscape and into our ecosystem, our bodies and the food we eat.

I’m talking about messes like mountaintop removal strip mining which has leveled more than 2,200 square miles of Appalachian Mountains. They are impossible to put back; they are gone forever.

I’m talking about messes like the burial of more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian Mountain streams—the coal companies had to put those mountaintops somewhere so they filled in the valleys.

I’m talking about the pollution of tens of thousands of miles of Appalachian Mountain streams, most of it from acid mine drainage but also from heavy metals leached from the valley fills.

I’m talking about the displacement of Appalachian Mountain families and communities caused by flooding, landslides, toxic water, bad air, and mine subsidence that result from deforested, strip-mined mountains and underground mines.

I’m talking about messes like the toxic residue, in the form of coal ash, left behind after coal is burned. This material accounts for about 10% of the volume of coal and is stored in impoundments that will someday break as did the one in Harriman, TN, in 2008. The Environmental Protection Agency identifies 12 high-risk impoundments in North Carolina alone.

I’m talking about messes like mine fires, explosions, and collapses, as well as other accidents, that kill miners every year.

I am talking about messes like the rising level of acidification of our oceans caused by the acid rain downwind of our coal-fired power plants. Acid dissolves the shells of plankton floating at the acidified surface. We are killing of the base of the marine food chain.

Finally, I’m talking about the havoc starting to be seen by the insane level of greenhouse gases being pumped into our atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide. Coal-fired power plants are the leading contributor of carbon dioxide. For every ton of coal burned, more that 3½ tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere. The world burned nearly 7 billion tons of coal in 2007 and more than that each year since. This is a major contributor to the global warming that is driving the climate change we are only now starting to witness.

I hope you get my point. Who pays for the clean-up? It’s certainly not the mining companies or the power companies. If they did, your electric bills would skyrocket out of sight. They would no longer be able to tout that coal is the cheapest source of electricity. But you pay for it anyway. Instead of seeing it in your electric bill, it’s disguised as your tax dollars at work. These tax dollars subsidize coal mining. These tax dollars fund a slew of federal agencies to oversee, regulate, and fine the abuses of an industry that lives high on the hog using our money and our natural resources. These tax dollars fund the clean-up of the multiple messes that coal mining and coal burning leave behind.

You might wonder, “Are they insane? Why do they do this?” You should wonder, “Are we insane? Why do we let them do this?”

I have to ask a pair of hypothetical questions. “How much would we change our energy future if we invested one year’s $2.3 billion in North Carolina instead of sending it out of state? What would happen if we began developing North Carolina’s renewable energy resources and investing in energy efficiency?”

A quick walk around the Brevard College campus reveals dorms that are too hot in winter and too cold in summer. Most of our windows are single pane and not well caulked allowing heat to escape. Brevard College isn’t alone. These problems, or other similar efficiency problems, are standard in most buildings in the Southeast. With efficient thermostat controls and modern windows, we would save a bundle every year.

North Carolina is already a member of the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the offshore wind of the Atlantic outer continental shelf alone has the potential to generate four times the total electricity needs of the entire United States. I regard this as a minimum number. They assumed only 5 Megawatts of power output for every square kilometer (Mw/km2). A visit to any existing wind farm—onshore or offshore—reveals that their production is much higher than 5 Mw/km2. Which state in the consortium has the largest continental shelf on the Eastern Seaboard (caveat: Florida is not a member of the consortium.)? You guessed it: North Carolina. In reality, wind power is only a fraction of the potential. The inexorable push of the Gulf Stream has the potential to generate much more than the wind and each passing wave could be tapped for a portion of its energy up and down the coast. With a little forethought and planning, North Carolina could become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy within several decades—and I haven’t even mentioned solar power.

If North Carolina invested $2.3 billion in North Carolina by developing the abundant clean, natural energy flowing through the air and water just over the horizon from our coastline, we could put thousands of North Carolinians to work and create a sustainable energy boom that will carry us for decades, if not centuries, into the future. The power companies would continue to make a profit and we would continue to benefit from abundant, relatively inexpensive electricity.

It is essential that our politicians, our populace, and our power companies change their mindset. The old ways are becoming the source of our ruin. There are too many of us to allow continued poisoning of our world. We need to create a new, clean, abundant, sustainable energy future. The consequences of not doing so will be detrimental to all of us.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


by Jim Reynolds

Electricity drives our modern lifestyle. It always surprises me how few people understand where electricity comes from and how it is generated. There are three fundamental ways to generate electrical power. One of these, photovoltaic cells, is still in its infancy. It converts sunlight directly into electricity when photons from the sun jar electrons loose in a semiconductor, such as silicon, creating an electrical current. Efficiency of that conversion is creeping upward suggesting that someday every rooftop will become an electrical generating station. Only a tiny fraction of our electricity is currently produced by photovoltaic cells.

The piezoelectric effect generates a tiny flow of electrons caused by changes in pressure on a crystalline or ceramic material. Quartz is an abundant and well known as piezoelectric material. Automobile airbag sensors are probably the best known common use of a piezoelectricity. It will probably never be a major player in the field of power generation, although some interesting applications are being tried. Footsteps on a piezoelectric floor in buildings that frequently host numerous people, such as airports, subway stations, and malls, could soon power lighting along their walkways.

The primary electrical generation method requires that either 1) a magnet be mechanically spun inside a wire coil or 2) a coil be set spinning around a magnet. When these occur, electrons in the wire are set into motion creating an electrical current. Almost all of our electricity is generated this way. Numerous ingenious techniques for spinning magnets or coils have been developed by a lot of clever people. Fossil fuel and nuclear power plants boil water into steam and force the steam to turn the blades of a turbine with its attached magnet. Water flowing under a dam spins a turbine. Geothermal plants use natural pressurized steam from within the planet to turn the blades. Wind, wave, tidal, and ocean current turbines extract natural energy to turn the magnet.

It’s all electricity but which is best? Let's look at electrical space heating. The goal is to bring air temperature up to a room temperature between 20º-22º C. Using coal-fired electricity, this requires that coal be extracted from the ground, often causing immediate, long-term environmental destruction. It is then transported, usually by rail, to a power plant where thousands of tons of it are burned daily at up to 1500º C so that it can heat water to 375º C where it flashes to high-pressure steam. Blasting the steam into a turbine generates the electricity that flows across the wires to your home heating unit where air is heated to 20º-22º C. In addition to being able to watch Deepwater Horizon petroleum spew into the ocean from the warmth of our living rooms, society is left with tons of toxic coal ash, air and water pollution, a degraded landscape, and an acidifying ocean. The countryside is shrouded with a toxic dusting of lethal chemicals, primarily mercury and cadmium, that was released along with the carbon dioxide that results from burning carbon. More than 3½ tons of CO2 are released for every ton of carbon burned. The world burns more than 6.1 billion metric tons of coal each year to create steam: more than 16 million tons each day! After blowing the steam through a turbine, once, at ~35% thermodynamic efficiency, most waste heat is released into the atmosphere through cooling towers at the power plant. Although nuclear fuel avoids much of the water and air pollution, it demands a high level of security and leaves behind a lethal waste that needs to be closely guarded and monitored for the next million years. Few offer their backyards as storage sites. These are caveman approaches to generating electricity.

One might be led to conclude that electric heating is bad and should be banned. Not so! Think about that cold wind that pelted the country for most of January this year. That cold wind can turn a wind turbine, converting wind energy directly into electricity to heat your electric heater with only a fraction of the waste and virtually none of the environmental degradation. Deniers scream that wind power will kill birds and bats. How many birds and bats are killed by air pollution from coal-fired plants? or from flying into smokestacks? The body count in wind farms is well documented because these hapless critters fall where they get bonked. No body counts are made of air pollution-related deaths because air pollution kills anywhere that birds and bats breathe. The death toll is probably at least an order of magnitude higher than that in the wind farms. And that’s just birds and bats! When we account for the ill effects that generating electricity with coal has on all species living in the southeastern U.S., it becomes a massacre. This includes people. We know that in the southeastern United States, which has the worst regional air pollution in the country, there are thousands of premature human deaths each year that are directly related to air pollution.

Fossil fuels are our natural capital. There is no requirement that we use them all up and deny future generations use of these valuable, nonrenewable materials--and they are not renewable, except over geologic time. No one doubts that this conversion will happen. Thomas L. Friedman is fond of quoting a Saudi Arabian oil minister who said, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.”

Naysayers and deniers claim that wind power is not economic—even though it is the fastest growing sector of our energy palette. I ask, “What the hell is so economic about heating water to 375º C so that air can be heated to 22º C?”

On top of that, who pays for the environmental cleanup and the destruction of our natural capital? We do! Through cleverly hidden subsidies to the nuclear and fossil fuel power industries, the clean-up is added our tax bill. If our electric bills reflected the true cost of using nuclear or coal-fired electricity, we would be screaming at Congress to lower our taxes by developing the renewable energy field as fast as possible. Some people ask “Why do they get away with this?” A growing chorus is asking a better question, “Why do we let them get away with this?” Dropping all fossil fuel subsidies as soon as possible should be a national goal.

The market will sort out which techniques are truly economical. The only reason nuclear and coal survive as power generators is through heavy government subsidies that serve to mask the true cost of our energy use. If we took away the subsidies, both nuclear and coal electrical generation would go the way of the buggy whip within years. Similarly, if we subsidized renewable energy at the same level as coal and nuclear, it would out-compete both coal and nuclear and drive them from the marketplace. Adding new subsidies is an expensive proposition; I prefer to drop existing subsidies to let market forces sort out the best course.

Guardians of the energy status quo also cry out to do away with government regulation and champion a free-market economy. Then they claim that converting to renewable energy will bankrupt our grandchildren’s future because we will need to pay too much to convert to renewables. These noble guardians cling to the present to offer us a decimated, poisoned landscape, ocean, and atmosphere as their vision of the future. Such logic reeks of short-sighted, self-serving profit and corruption. Who, in their right mind, would prefer a poisoned planet over a clean one?

Wall Street, for all of its ills, sees the writing on the wall. Nuclear power plants can only be constructed with government-backed loans because banks and investors know a poor risk when they see one. A similar, wholesale flight from fossil fuel-generated electricity is accelerating rapidly. Last year, the Environmental Defense Fund successfully argued down the construction of 100 coal-fired power plants by a Texas utility. The result: Texas is seeing a growth surge in renewable energy, particularly wind power. It recently passed Iowa and California as the leading renewable-energy producing state.

Following conservative principles into a green future is not an oxymoronic statement. All that is needed is to put conservation back into conservatism. Remember, Texas is the home state of our last president. He will never be remembered as a friend of clean, renewable energy but that’s what happened in Texas anyhow.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Clarion student newspaper, at Brevard College, Brevard, NC.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Day After

The Day After

by Jim Reynolds

The Gusher in the Gulf remains unplugged. The "top kill" didn't work. I hope, for all of us, that the next attempt at choking it off will solve the problem but there are still plenty of things that can go wrong. If it works, it will mean that we dodged the bullet—or at least part of the bullet—this time.

There are still the tremendous problems of all of the oil floating on the Gulf surface and all of the oil floating well below the surface that need to be addressed. In a typical western, industrialized-nation style, we are expending huge amounts of energy lassoing tiny bits of the megaslick and then igniting the contained puddle, to release clouds of CO2 and CH4 (methane), among other gases, into our atmosphere. Of course this release would eventually happen anyhow with the gradual evaporation of the slick or by the refined petroleum being burned in the engine of our cars. At least in our autos a fraction of the energy is put to use rather than being completely wasted. It’s a “use it or lose it” situation.

If we are going to expend large amounts of energy on the clean-up, let’s apply forethought to do it efficiently and with deep concern for environmental sensitivity. Native Americans and other aboriginal cultures in tune with their environment would probably come up with a different solution to clean up the mess. I suspect their solution would involve much more energy but much less work. Unlike the western solution, most of the energy in the more aboriginal solution is part of a natural flow. It is going where it is going anyway. It’s a different type of “use it or lose it” situation: nature could care less if we use it.

I used to live on the Tuckaseigee River in Jackson County, North Carolina. About three kilometers downstream, an old Cherokee rock weir still sits in the river. It was built hundreds of years ago to funnel some of the water toward the downstream opening where the two sides of the V-shaped weir meet in the middle of the river. Some fish swimming downriver would take the easy ride of the current rather than struggling to swim between or over the rocks in the weir wall. The Cherokee placed a large basket at the mouth of the weir and collected fish for dinner. This technique worked well for pre-industrial people all over the world for millennia.

The Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico harbors more energy than most of us can imagine. It enters the Gulf, after exiting the Caribbean, through the broad Yucatan Channel between Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the western tip of Cuba. It slowly sweeps around the Gulf Coast in a clockwise direction, eventually merging with itself, back along the Yucatan Coast, to close the loop. Since a lot of water enters the Gulf, a lot must leave it too. The only place that surface water exits the Gulf is where a portion of the Loop Current breaks off and flows through the Straits of Florida between the Florida Keys and the north coast of Cuba. The current then bifurcates at the Cay Sal Bank, between Elbow Cay and Cay Sal. Most of the water continues through the Straits of Florida between Florida’s east coast and the Bahamas to join the Gulf Stream. The rest follows the Cuban coast and merges with the Gulf Stream through channels cutting between islands in the eastern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. The Straits of Florida and its distributaries are the only place we can hope to recover the petroleum to prevent it from being distributed throughout the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

The United States throws away millions of tons of plastic every year. Plastic is made from petroleum, much of it imported from the Middle East, so, it floats! By constructing a series of plastic booms, an eastward-pointing, V-shaped weir, composed of short (5-10 km), angled, anchored, floating booms will direct the floating petroleum toward a collection point where the current naturally splits at Cay Sal Bank. Anchor points, starting in the Dry Tortugas and west of Havana and moving outward on the shelves toward the east, will provide maximum beach protection on both sides of the straits (see figure below).

At the V of the weir, a large, floating, walled catchment “basin” could collect the surface water/petroleum mix. I say “basin” because the “basin” would have no bottom. The petroleum would float to the top. The water would be pumped out below the sidewalls. As the catchment fills with petroleum, other pumps would lift the reconcentrated petroleum onto tankers to be carried to refineries and then into our gas tanks. Although this may seem elaborate, it is not nearly as complicated as trying to drill a well in deep water from a floating platform.

A series of short booms, starting where the Loop Current enters the Straits of Florida will direct the floating petroleum toward a collection point where the petroleum can be loaded onto tankers. Note that this system takes advantage of current energy flowing this way anyhow. (Imagery modified from Google Earth)

Until the booms are constructed, our efforts should be dedicated to keeping as much petroleum as we can circulating in the Loop Current, away from our shorelines, diverting it back into the current with the shorter booms now being used to lasso it. Once the booms are in place, the lassos can be used to direct more of the floating goo toward the Straits of Florida for capture. It’s all going to go there eventually, anyhow.

The system certainly won’t be perfect, at first, but it will probably take several years for most of the petroleum to find its way out of the Gulf. Undoubtedly, many clever engineering modifications will be made to maximize collection efficiency and protect it from seasonal storms and hurricanes. The important thing is that we, at least partially, averted an environmental catastrophe set in motion by our fossil fuel addiction.

Or did we?

In “Disaster in Slow Motion” I outlined a doom and gloom worst case scenario where the petroleum slick accelerates the melting of the Arctic Ocean sea ice and triggers a return to ice age conditions. In truth, most climate scientists now say that the Arctic Ocean will experience ice-free summers by 2020, if not sooner, even without the Deepwater Horizon disaster. At most, plugging the leak and recapturing the surface petroleum buys us 10 years. These are 10 years that we already had for free but no one was listening to the warnings of imminent climatic crisis. Now we've bought those 10 years at an outrageous environmental cost. What we do with that time will determine the future for many generations.

Our addiction to fossil fuels uses only a small fraction of the energy expended when they combust. Unlike not using all of the natural energy flowing by, there is a litany of environmental consequences to this inefficiency that does serious destruction to our air, soil, water, and oceans. We need to break our addiction to fossil fuels in 10 years or face dire climatic consequences. This can only be done with a conversion to natural energy. It has to be natural energy, not nuclear power. We could start building a hundred new nuclear plants tomorrow and would still not receive a single watt from any of them in 10 years, maybe 20 years. Or, for a lesser price, we could start building a hundred offshore wind farms tomorrow and have them operating at full capacity in 3-4 years. Such abundant electricity and rising petroleum prices would hasten the conversion to all-electric vehicles and relegate fossil fuels and nuclear power to minor players in a new era of abundant clean energy. Perhaps the silver lining in the Deepwater Horizon disaster is that it will initiate a paradigm shift, in earnest, to a world run on green energy.

If I am completely wrong about a coming climatic change, have we really lost anything by converting to a society that lives off of the natural energy in its local environment?

Will this paradigm shift come in time to avert serious climatic consequences? I don’t know. This is the real disaster in slow motion. I know I would live in constant regret if we did nothing over the next 10 years and then the climate waged its wrath on us.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Disaster in Slow Motion

Jim Reynolds

When I hear the term “worst-case scenario”, I usually dismiss it, thinking, “It will never get that bad.” My rationale in making this judgment is that things will change over time. Even so, the term has great value because if we are aware of how bad it might get, with enough lead time, we can prepare mitigation strategies so that “it will never get that bad.” The massive seafloor gusher in the Gulf of Mexico requires that kind of thinking and that kind of mitigation effort.

At first, the media harped that this disaster might rival the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. That was a soft-sell; there was no need for the subjunctive tense. Within a matter of days, the Deepwater Horizon blowout will eclipse the Exxon Valdez and it may pass Chernobyl as the worst manmade environmental disaster on record. Given that the best-case predictions of capping the flow are still weeks, if not months, away, it is probably a good idea to roll out the worst-case scenarios and start strategizing about fighting it long-term as the contamination spreads.

Most media coverage about the Gulf catastrophe gives the impression that this is a local event and that the Gulf shoreline of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and western Florida, are destined for disaster. This is undoubtedly true for vast stretches of the coast. They will see the worst shoreline effects but this is not a local event; this disaster will affect a much larger area.

We could well be witnessing the first stages of a global environmental Armageddon as it unfolds before our eyes in slow motion. The petroleum slick will is now in the Loop Current which will accelerate dispersal of the Gulf slick and begin to convert it into the North Atlantic Ocean slick. Once the hydrocarbon raft starts moving with the current, it will spread throughout the Gulf of Mexico. A portion of it will escape the Gulf through the Florida Straits between the Dry Tortugas and Cuba, fouling the shorelines on both sides. Most of that water will continue up the Florida Straits, between Florida’s east coast and the Bahamas, while the rest spreads through the passages between the various islands of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. The ooze will continue to flow up the east coast of North America powered by the Gulf Stream. It would be wise for all East Coast states and Maritime provinces to prepare mitigation efforts similar to the valiant stand currently being made by citizens of the Gulf states.

Not all of that floating petroleum will be absorbed by North American beaches, estuaries, and wetlands. The Gulf Stream will carry part of it past Greenland and Iceland toward Europe where the Gulf Stream splits to form the North Atlantic Current, which flows northward into the Arctic Ocean, and the Canary Current, which flows southward along the west coasts of Europe and North Africa.

A small portion of the Canary Current branches off and flows into the Mediterranean. Petroleum that gets into the Mediterranean will stay there because there is no surface outflow. The rest of it begins to flow westward a few degrees north of the equator as the North Equatorial Current, eventually entering the Caribbean and returning to the Gulf of Mexico where the current flow cycle starts over again. Fortunately, there is very little surface water that crosses the equator, so it is likely that the slick can be contained in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

The North Atlantic (and Arctic) slick won’t be the chocolate brown goo that is being monitored in the Gulf at present. It is more likely to be a thin film, a fraction of a millimeter thick, with a colorful iridescent sheen similar to those often seen on puddles in parking lots.

The consequences of a thin petroleum film floating on the surface of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans need to be addressed. The film constitutes a barrier for oxygen exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere. Most near-surface life is comprised of zooplankton (animals) and phytoplankton (plants). Without oxygen this bountiful community of unicellular life will perish: the base of the food chain will disappear. Like falling dominos, the North Atlantic extinction will travel up the food chain. Fisheries will become a memory. Cultures that rely on seafood for sustenance, primarily in Africa, northern South America, Central America, and Caribbean island nations will need to adapt to a change of diet or face a similar fate.

The petroleum film will also impede water evaporation. If the solar energy that evaporates water is blocked, the only alternative is for the surface water temperature to rise. Warmer water will accelerate Arctic Ocean melting during the long summer daylight hours and impede refreezing during the long, cold, winter darkness. Arctic Ocean mammals such as polar bears, walruses, and other pinnipeds will probably not survive.

Fortunately, nature has its way of curing what ails it. Over a period of years to decades to centuries, or millennia, depending on how long it takes to plug the leak, the petroleum will decompose and life will slowly return to the poisoned oceans but it will be a different world. An ice-free Arctic Ocean will trigger dramatic climate changes. Increased summer evaporation will dump vast amounts of moisture on northern Eurasia and North America. In the winter months, it will fall as snow—lots of snow. Incoming spring sunlight will reflect back into space, cooling the planet. Melt water will enter the Arctic Ocean and float on top because it is less dense than seawater. Unlike today, surface water will flow out of the Arctic Ocean and override the warm but salty North Atlantic Current, sinking the heat supply that makes Northern Europe habitable. This could foment a return to Ice Age conditions while shortening growing seasons and sparking population migrations.

I provide these predictions as a worst-case scenario in the hope that there is enough lead time to rally mitigation efforts. Earth is an incredibly intricate and complicated system. The petroleum mega-leak disrupts important components and causes systemic ripple effects. If we don’t attack the problem with inspired mitigation, we could face a bleak future on both sides of the North Atlantic.

The media overuse the term “tipping point” to describe a rapid and dramatic climate change. We may be watching that tipping point gurgling out into the Gulf of Mexico on the evening news. This severe environmental catastrophe may turn into humanity’s greatest challenge. I hope not; I would love to be wrong but you should know about it.

Is there a solution? The best chance at mitigation is in the Straits of Florida between the Dry Tortugas and west of Havana, the narrowest passage the petroleum will have to flow through. If a floating weir were established, it could funnel the floating muck to a central collection point downstream, to the east. Any petroleum headed for the Atlantic must pass through this channel. This will take unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba but too much is at stake to allow our differences to hinder the mitigation effort.

Reynolds is an Associate Professor of Geology at Brevard College, Brevard, NC.

An earlier version of this editorial appeared in the Transylvania Times, Brevard, NC.