Carlton Meyer: Clean Energy Mythology


Richard Moore

Clean Energy Mythology
By Carlton Meyer   

It is no surprise that renewable energy projects produce profits. This attracts corporations and associated university research departments anxious to promote their products. They simplify many complex challenges to attract funding. Many “proven” technologies are not economically viable while other concepts defy reason.

The following are three examples:

New Nuclear Power Plants are not an Option

Many advocate an expansion of nuclear energy as an alternative to dirty coal. The USA has not built a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years. New plants are possible, but three issues make this impractical. First, nuclear energy is not purely “clean.” Most uranium ore is very low grade and requires massive mining and processing to refine into “yellow cake.” This consumes substantial energy that produces greenhouse emissions. The construction of nuclear waste storage facilities and the perpetual security required consumes energy as well.

A second factor not addressed is that dozens of American nuclear plants have been decommissioned and more are scheduled for shutdown. America’s nuclear power production is declining. Keeping America’s ageing nuclear plants in service will be an expensive effort. Building new nuclear power plants is unnecessarily expensive and wasteful while billions of dollars are spent to decommission older plants. It should cost half as much to update and rebuild older nuclear power plant sites, which could be done in half the time. Rebuilding some of the partially decommissioned plants on the list below is another option.

Plant upgrades have occurred at nuclear power plants by gradually replacing one reactor at a time. However, it may be best to shut down and refurbish an entire site into a new facility since it already has the land, permits, security fencing, high-voltage electrical systems, and expensive containment buildings. This only requires new reactors, new computers, new pumps and pipes. Finally, the cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant is avoided. There should be no discussion about building new nuclear power plants when dozens of ageing or partially decommissioned plants can be rebuilt at half the cost and in half the time.

A bigger issue affecting the future of nuclear power is that miners may be unable to produce enough uranium ore to power existing nuclear plants, much less new ones. Worldwide production remains stagnant as new ore deposits have proven difficult to locate or develop. Meanwhile, China is building dozens of new nuclear plants that will require fuel. SRA’s energy analyst, John Busby, has published several articles about this vital albeit largely ignored issue.[2]

Before any government commits billions of dollars for new or refurbishing old nuclear power plants, it must develop a solid plan to guarantee a uranium fuel supply for 30 years of operation. This should include a large government stockpile to cover unexpected shortfalls and long, long-term contracts with major suppliers. This is the top priority, but major corporations prefer billions of government dollars for new plant construction rather than expenditures to secure uranium fuel. Debates about building new nuclear power plants are baseless. The key issues are how to guarantee a 30-year supply of uranium for existing plants,and the value of rebuilding those recently shut down, or those scheduled for decommissioning.

Clean Coal Remains Elusive

If clean coal power plants were viable, they would be in widespread use today. While there is interesting research in this field, nothing practical has emerged. There are expensive techniques to scrub coal emissions cleaner, but these require tremendous energy themselves. Those demonstrated require some 30% more energy to clean the coal. This requires 30% more coal production that requires substantial energy to mine and transport. This 30% extra coal burned must be cleaned as well, so even more coal must be mined, transported, and burned, which must also be cleaned. This cascading requirement cancels the benefit of cleaning coal emissions, not to mention the added costs. Worst of all, these “clean coal” emissions while much cleaner are still not fully clean.

The only pure solution is the idea of “carbon capture and storage.” Coal emissions could be injected into large underground caverns. If one watches the continual emissions flowing out the stacks of coal power plants, it is easy to see that these underground caverns must be enormous. This has been demonstrated on a small scale, but the idea was shelved for varied reasons. Large underground caverns do not exist everywhere, so most plants would have to expend energy to pump the emissions hundreds of miles. After a cavern fills in a few years, miles of pipeline must be moved to another site.

The biggest problem is that no one knows the true size of known large caverns, or if they would leak carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Pressure should build over time, but if it doesn’t, it is impossible to know if the cavern is much larger than thought, or if emissions are flowing out a deep surface crack a hundred miles away. Given that coal company executives want to maximize profits, they will be unconcerned that an underground carbon storage site may be leaking. Oil, gas, and water drillers may hit sequestered carbon deposits, forcing them to cap their well at a great financial loss. This would lead to lawsuits by these companies and the owners of the mineral rights demanding compensation for polluting the subsurface below their land.

The Earth’s surface often shifts, so a small crack may release years’ worth of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere in a month, and no one would know. If such a leak is discovered, the liability may be huge, especially if fumes spout up in an urban area. Finally, the effect of pumping harmful gasses below the surface on local water sources is unknown.

As a result, attention has turned to limiting coal production by the use of carbon “cap-and-trade” schemes. This seems like a simple solution, but result in higher electricity costs, possible power outages, and a migration of industry to poorer nations with cheaper labor and cheaper “uncapped” coal-powered plants. Finally, any new company that wants to introduce more fuel efficient or less polluting equipment into the marketplace is deterred because it must buy credits. An SRA exclusive from last November “The Carbon Racket” exposes the downside of carbon trading.[3]

Cap-and-trade emissions schemes are an ineffective method of reducing pollution. Carbon taxes are better since they produce revenue that can be directed toward energy research. However, air pollution is a worldwide problem that must be addressed with international agreements or import/export taxes. These complex issues are evaded when victory is declared by implementing carbon trading schemes that push polluters and their jobs onto poorer nations, while enriching bankers with trading commissions and rewarding established polluters with valuable credits. Clean coal research will continue to develop technology to reduce emissions from power plants, but no truly clean coal technology exits today.

Beware of the Electrical Grid Cartel

President Obama has pledged support for expanding the nation’s electrical grid to carry wind and solar power from remote areas to America’s biggest cities. This has widespread support, but it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. The U.S. Department of Energy believes the nation can produce 20% of its electrical energy from wind by 2030.[4] However, this energy can power cities near windy areas, so there is no need to spend billions of dollars for the construction of power lines to transmit this power to distant American cities. In addition, transmitting power uses power, and power lines require expensive maintenance.

For example, proposals exist to transmit electrical power from areas of windy North Dakota almost a thousand miles to Chicago. However, North Dakota burns coal to produce 91% of its electrical power.[5] North Dakota wind power should be used by that state first. As the number of wind farms grow over the decades, plans for expanding the nation’s power grid to transmit excess regional power to distant cities should be funded. Meanwhile, building the wind farms themselves is the priority.

A recent example of this ploy occurred when Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens secured government help to build power lines from his wind farms near Pampa in the north Texas “Panhandle” region to Dallas, which is 350 miles away. Meanwhile, the mid-size city of Amarillo near his wind farms will continue to burn coal and natural gas to generate its electrical power. The story becomes bizarre as wind swept Amarillo is pursuing a license to build a new nuclear power plant.

The reasons may be local political infighting, but Matthew McDermott found the likely motivation. Pickens’ Mesa Water company has access to massive underground fresh water reservoirs in the Panhandle region, but no right-of-way to build pipelines to pump it to the lucrative Dallas-Fort Worth urban area. A recent state law allows the use of eminent domain authority to gain right-of-way for high power transmission lines to allow wind farms to move their electricity to market. This will allow Mesa Water to build a water pipeline along the route.[6]

There are benefits to upgrading the nation’s power grid, if only to accommodate population growth. However, there is ample local electrical demand in windy regions that should be satisfied before embracing ambitious plans to build expensive infrastructure to transmit electricity hundreds of miles. Perhaps state or federal intervention is necessary to broker agreements, offer incentives, or simply force windy cities to purchase wind power. Meanwhile, proposals to spend billions of dollars on new long-distance power lines should be met with skepticism.

Charting an Energy Future

There are many practical ideas to address future energy needs. Unfortunately, there are prominent crackpots pushing bizarre agendas. For example, Fox News publishes columns from Steven Milloy who blasts all new energy ideas as “junk science.” Sometimes he makes good points about dubious projects, but he also attacks obviously good ideas while promoting junk science that supports his warped idea of free enterprise.

Last year, he wrote a bizarre column attacking President Bush and the two leading presidential candidates for supporting energy conservation. Milloy argues that conservation is bad for the economy because it reduces spending. He wrote that conservation is not a virtue for those who “vainly choose to conserve to achieve some imagined ‘greater purpose,’ such as ‘saving the planet’ or ‘reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” Molloy blames past economic recessions on conservation efforts, and peddles junk science by claiming North America is awash in untapped oil reserves.[7] It is amazing that Fox News editors publish such nonsense and that Milloy is still paid.

On the other extreme, there are “environmentalists” fighting an effort by San Diego Gas and Electric to build a 150-mile power line to tap solar energy from a nearby desert. It would run across 23 miles of desolate state desert parkland to provide more than half the electrical needs of the San Diego area. However, it is opposed by a tiny yet loud group of self-described environmentalists who say the power line will spoil the park’s scenic beauty.[8]

One can only hope that rational people will prevail. If not, perhaps a national energy czar is required to resolve petty jurisdictional bickering. Meanwhile, political leaders must remain skeptical of clean energy proposals, because most are not economically viable while other concepts defy reason. The future of nuclear power is questionable, but money and efforts must focus on the viability of sustaining today’s nuclear power plants; new power plants are not a practical option at this time. Clean coal is a laudable goal but remains impractical, while carbon trading is a racket. Wind power has great promise, but windy areas should supply nearby cities first and may never produce enough excess power to justify building expensive long-distance power lines. Political leaders must study these issues to dismiss plans based on mythology and focus funding on practical renewable energy investments.

[1] “NRC: Fact Sheet,” U.S. Govt. NRC, January 22, 2008.

[2] “La naissance ou l’avortement,” John Busby, SRA, Dec. 9, 2008; SRA has published several other articles about this uranium shortage. Search this website for “uranium” to access the others.

[3] “The Carbon Racket,” SRA, November 11, 2008.

[4] “20% Wind Energy by 2030,” U.S. Govt. DOE website, accessed March 1, 2009.

[5] “State Profiles,” CARE website, accessed March 1, 2009.

[6] “Water Pipeline Not Wind Power, Real Reason Pickens Can Build Transmission Lines,” Treehugger, June 16, 2008.

[7] “Junk Science: Conservation Nation,” Fox News, July 17, 2008.

[8] “Power lines stand in way of huge solar farm ,” MSNBC, June 17, 2008.