Energy Systems Writ Large

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If we want to talk seriously about mitigating climate change, there are going to be a lot of oxen gored. The energy producers, of course, will be up in arms. The utilities, too. Everyone of them wants to do it their way, which doesn’t benefit from distributed generation. That we would expect.

Some related industries will scream as loud. The rail industry, for instance, which rakes in the bucks shipping coal from here to there, and the plastics industry, which produces all that cool stuff from petro-chemicals, will be unhappy with any changes that are forced on them.

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But we suspect, too, that the environmental industry (and it is an industry) will raise a hue and cry. Climate change has generated a take-no-prisoners attitude among many of the most vocal proponents of green energy. It is post-carbon/no-carbon only with not much room given to discussions of how we get from here to there. We say “no” but not “how.”

The makers of all the equipment that collects energy from sun and wind may feel threatened. The renewable energy industry will be reluctant to give up a good thing: being the either-or choice to carbon-based fuels. Problem is: substituting renewables for fossil fuels can’t happen fast enough and can’t get the job done on its own. A base fuel is needed.

Here’s the plain and simple truth: climate change is accelerating much faster than current efforts can mitigate it. Having targets of x-percentage carbon-neutral energy production by such and such a date is political theatre and nothing more. We have to do better.

We may feel good because we are doing something, but it is much too little and rapidly becoming too late. We need to do several things immediately to arrest the pace of climate change, and we need to keep doing it until the problem is brought under control.

What should we do? First, we must eliminate coal as a fuel source world-wide. There are 10,000 coal-fired power plants in the world and more than 1,000 new ones being built.

That is a daunting prospect, especially for those thousands of people who make their living in the mines. But the time for coal is past. It is an industry we can’t afford any longer. There are many questions to be answered about what we must do to successfully put it behind us. The most obvious one: How do we replace that source of fuel?

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There are only two choices currently available that can provide the world’s need for electricity: natural gas and nuclear power. Arguments for and against them can be made, but considering the cost of building nuclear plants, the untenable safety record of the industry, and the inescapable fact that the pollution it produces has a half-life of 50,000 years which we have no way of disposing of, natural gas is a far more manageable fuel.

Converting the world’s coal-fired plants to natural gas will reduce carbon in the atmosphere by 40% overnight. It comes from an industry with an unsavory reputation of its own; however, the fuel itself is relatively clean burning.

Pounds of Air Pollutants per Billion Btus of Energy

POLLUTANT NATURAL GAS OIL COAL
Carbon Dioxide 117,000 164,000 208,000
Carbon Monoxide 40 33 208
Nitrogen Oxides 92 448 457
Sulfur Dioxide 1 1,122 2,591
Particulates 7 84 2,744
Mercury 0.0000 0.0007 0.016

Source: EIA, DOE

What about methane? Natural gas is one of the primary sources of methane in the atmosphere, which is a serious pollutant. It is a by-product not of burning gas but rather of mining it. Regulations to eliminate methane release from gas wells must be put in place and strictly enforced.

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Note, too, that as much as two-thirds of methane in the atmosphere comes from animal flatulence and excrement, particularly from livestock in feedlots and stockyards, and from naturally occurring chemical processes in wetlands. Trapping and using that methane for fuel will produce energy and reduce climate change.

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The next thing that should be done is to focus subsidies for renewable energy at the consumer level rather than at the producer level. Residential and commercial buildings consume 40% of all electricity in the U.S. and produce more than one-fifth of all the CO2 in the atmosphere.[1]

Put the money into providing solar and/or geothermal systems in place at every residence, in every small business, in every place where energy is needed that doesn’t rise to the scale of massive office buildings or industrial parks. Let the grid feed those massive consumers of energy while we feed the grid.

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Simultaneously, let’s concentrate on local and community level sources of energy from fuel cell plants, wind and solar farms that can feed directly into local industrial parks and other larger scale users, and especially on enhanced energy storage systems.

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Let’s explore the wisest use of micro-grid technology in utilizing clean energy sources at the local community level. The idea is to concentrate renewable energy as close as possible to the users of that energy, which is where it is most effective and most successfully fulfills its purpose.

Creating widely distributed sources of energy production serves a great many needs simultaneously and it is affordable. It reduces demand, especially peak demand, on the electrical grid; it lessens the vulnerability of communities to power outages; it insulates us from man-made or natural disasters; and it teaches us the value of building out from the individual consumer rather than in from the producers and the centralized power system.

[1] here

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