Green Energy Options
June begins our two-month (August) “Energy Summit in Print.” Energy costs being what they are, we want to provide you with good energy-saving ideas and technology. To that end, this column is devoted to increasing our energy awareness. With all there is to talk about, we will wrap up the discussion in the August editorial.
Several topics need to be discussed, including reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources, alternative energy (green) sources, pertinent legislation and our response to this subject. To begin, no one would question the need to be less dependent on foreign sources of energy. One of the ways we can do this is to tap the resources available here in the U.S. or in our accessible offshore areas. Environmentalists have been and continue to be opposed to any and all attempts to make use of our own natural resources. These resources might include oil in tar sands or shale as well as in areas such as ANWR or offshore. These options do not reduce our carbon-based fossil-fuel use, however.
Another way to gain energy independence and reduce our use of fossil fuels is to generate our energy through alternative means. A nonexhaustive list of the possibilities are wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, tidal or biomass. Wind power is a familiar one for most of us. While this option has many obstacles to becoming a global energy source, it is making progress. Last December, the U.K. launched a plan to build hundreds of offshore turbines. If the plan comes to fruition, enough energy could be generated to power the equivalent of all of the homes in the U.K. Domestically, one of the newest wind farms was built on a 30-acre portion of the old Bethlehem Steel mill along the shores of Lake Erie. This sounds like a good plan for reclaiming other defunct manufacturing (brownfield) sites.
There are two basic approaches to harnessing solar energy. The first relies on the heating effects of energy absorbed from the sun – concentrated solar power (CSP). The other, the photovoltaic (PV) effect, relies on the electron-generating effect of photons from the sun. The difference is the energy storage – heat or electricity – with heat being 20-100 times cheaper to store. Solar thermal plants (CSP) covering the equivalent of a 92-mile square grid in the Southwest could generate enough electricity for the entire U.S. In addition to the crystalline-silicon photovoltaics currently dominating the PV marketplace, new technologies such as micro- and nano-enabled thin-film photovoltaics are gaining ground.
Nuclear power – once taboo to even discuss – is seeing a bit of a revival. In just the last few weeks, all three presidential candidates (maybe there are fewer by the time you read this) have taken a position. The positions range from embracing to eschewing it. Even the founder of Greenpeace, who admits there is no proof global warming is caused by humans, believes the answer is worldwide construction of hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next century.
Geothermal power works on the principle of a large-scale heat pump. The heat stored beneath the earth holds 50,000 times the energy of all the oil and gas in the world combined. A new geothermal facility was just announced for the southwestern desert area of Utah, but current geothermal plants in the U.S. generate enough electricity to power South Dakota.
Biomass-generated power is like the old saying about making lemonade when life hands you lemons. One source of this has been discussed in a previous article (October 2006) – landfill gases. Other sources include methane-based animal farm waste, which can be converted into gas by using anaerobic digester tanks. Similarly, municipal waste water is a third waste-to-energy opportunity. Compared to some of the other options, biomass fuel releases CO2 that has been stored relatively recently. As a result, it may not be considered a truly “green” option.
In August, we will discuss what it all means and review some of the things to watch for as legislation is enacted to “encourage” green energy sources. Until then, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has advised against the Climate Security Act of 2007 (S. 2191), which may be being debated by the Senate as you read this editorial. If enacted, S. 2191 would set aggressive standards on CO2 emmissions, establishing a mechanism for carbon trading. While the passage of this bill is unclear, you should be aware that late last year Congress slipped a provision in an appropriations bill that orders the EPA to develop a rule in the next 18 months that requires a mandatory reporting of greenhouse-gas emissions. For more information from NAM, including letters containing specific information on how this bill could impact your state, visit their online toolkit at www.nam.org/climatechangetoolkit. IH