Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Is Clean Energy Really Clean?

Well, some of it is, but some of it – like solar and hydroelectric – is relatively clean. Some of it, however, is just less dirty. Look, for example, at natural gas as a substitute for coal. All things being equal, natural gas is far cleaner than coal, producing about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, which theoretically makes it a better choice for now as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner options.

However, there are a couple problems with natural gas:

1) it is composed mainly of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas (much worse than carbon dioxide), so if methane leaks during production, that wipes out all the gains that would have been realized by using natural gas over coal;

2) the oil industry often burns off the natural gas released during the fracking process because the companies don’t have in place a cost-effective system for containing and transporting the natural gas – e.g., a pipeline to carry the gas to a storage facility.

So if natural gas were captured in a careful (i.e., more expensive) way, if we were willing to pay more for it to ensure its greater environmental benefits, it would be a far superior option to coal. It still is slightly better, but not by as much as it could be.

Okay, so natural gas isn’t as clean as we hoped. What about wind?

Wind turbines purport to be clean energy and, again, compared to coal, they are. However, they’re not as clean as many believe. For example, the energy cost to make one of those large turbines we see out in the fields is huge – mining the steel, constructing the blades and towers, refining the plastics needed – all this costs energy.

In addition, wind turbines have a tendency to kill large numbers of birds and bats in the vortices that are created by their spinning blades. So even though there’s a net gain with respect to carbon dioxide and a decrease in CO2 emissions by using wind, it’s not all chocolate and roses.

Ethanol, another purportedly cleaner fuel source, costs almost as much energy to produce as plain old gasoline when you factor in the total CO2 emissions (i.e., adding in the energy cost of creating the ethanol to add to the gas).

So that leaves us with solar, geothermal and hydroelectric (particularly wave energy). All three of these are far superior to the choices above. All of them tap into natural processes that don’t require the kinds of manipulation of the environment of the former options to achieve their ends. But we’ve been slow to adopt them because doing so would cost more than we’re willing to spend.

We’re getting there, but for now our culture of consumption has prevented us from fully embracing the best possible solutions. We don’t want to slow down business for any amount of time. We don’t want to stop, take a breath, figure out the best solution and then proceed with that.

Instead, we wish to keep going as we’ve been going, slowly integrating better systems into the mix, hoping we’re moving fast enough, trusting that we have time to pull it off before our physical world rebels.

I hope we’re right.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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