Energy Sources & Demand Sectors
Continued burning of coal and oil at 2018 levels is a global nightmare. Though natural gas is replacing coal-powered electric plants, we must ramp-up Green Energy to meet the electricity demand of our growing, urbanizing population. We must convert old nuclear plants to safer nextgen-nuclear power plants. Lastly, we must do these things while helping coal and oil workers transition to middle-class jobs and without slowing our economy.
Throughout the 19th Century, America fueled most its economy using coal. Late in the 19th Century, electricity was introduced. In the early 20th Century, oil and natural gas rose to prominence, followed by a handful of hydroelectric dams. In the second half of the 20th Century, we added nuclear and geothermal energy. In the late 20th Century, we added Green Energy (wind, solar, biofuel) to the mix. Those energy choices occurred without a federal plan to balance their pros and cons with smart, climate-friendly energy choices.
Based on the latest available EIA data and as Part 2 and Part 3 explain, we no longer have the luxury of letting market forces gradually transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Based on Fukushima and other incidents, its foolhardy to continue running old-generation nuclear reactors in unsafe locations. To the extent that we employ safer, nextgen Nuclear power plants, they must be located away from seismic faults and flood zones.
To pursue those Big Carrots named in Part 2 and counter the Big Sticks named in Part 3, in 2009-10 President Obama used 2009 economic stimulus funds to start many Green Energy projects. He proposed eliminating coal & oil subsidies to transfer those funds to wind, solar and biofuel. If he succeeded, Green Energy by 2030, would be as prominent as Oil and Natural Gas are today.
The Republican Congressional majority did not share Obama’s visionary pursuit of the Big Carrots, nor his fear of the Big Sticks. Their fossil fuel backers forbade support of Green Energy and Green Transportation.
Declining Cheap Oil, Rising Risky Oil
“Cheap Oil” is easily accessible oil and close to the surface. As the world emerges from economic recession, the cost of both Cheap Oil will rise because world oil demand is rising. And yet, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says, in 2012, America consumed 6.9 billion barrels of oil, down from 7.5 billion barrels consumed in 2007. Since America reduced total oil consumption and reduced imported oil, shouldn’t that be good news?
America’s Cheap Oil is so depleted that a majority of domestic oil is now extracted from deeper, environmentally-risky places, including from shale miles below large underground water aquifers. If a major accident occurs at the aquifer level, there is risk of catastrophe. Thats why is deep underground and deep underwater oil, is better called “Risky Oil.”
BP’s Risky Oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico was a wake-up call. No one can prove that another catastrophe won’t occur deep underwater or deep underground. Companies and governments can only lower risks associated with such Risky Oil via a safety-valve cutover well, vigilant safety operations and rigorous federal safety inspections. Therefore, America’s energy strategy should strategically cut coal and oil consumption, while replacing those jobs with green energy and advanced battery jobs. Oil companies would also have Americans believe that we face an undesirable Hobson’s Choice concerning oil supply:
• Continue importing Cheap Oil from Middle East and Africa
• Increase Risky Oil to become oil self-sufficient.
As you’ll see further below, there are better choices for energy.
Coal, The Back-end Danger
Even though America only consumes domestic coal, nothing is more environmentally damaging and toxic than mining and burning coal to generate electricity. Due to its high degree of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide, methane, air particulates, volatile organic compounds and mercury emissions, it is better described as “Dirty Coal.”
In 2011, 92% of Dirty Coal was consumed for electricity generation. Coal consumption by China and America made us the world’s two largest contributors to air pollution. Also in 2011, oil powered 93% of our Transportation.
Peddling fake hope to coal workers for votes, Trump says Clean Coal Technology is the answer. That technology attaches a giant catalytic converter to trap emissions during the process, while creating synthetic methane gas that burns as clean as methane gas separated from natural gas. Clean Coal Technology sounds good in theory, but does not makes economic or common sense regardless of what some devious politicians want low-information voters to believe.
First, America has a 100-year supply of natural gas, which makes methane extracted from natural gas cheaper than synthetic methane extracted by Clean Coal Technology. Second, America’s natural gas-powered plants produce half the smog and GHG emissions of Clean Coal Technology-electric plants. Even if the current president eliminates Obama’s EPA regulations to cut GHG and Smog, less expensive natural gas and knowledge that EPA regulations will return after Trump convinces utility companies to convert electric plants from Dirty Coal to natural gas. Third, GHG and other toxic waste sequestered by Clean Coal Technology have to be stored somewhere. But Americans have a “Not In My Back Yard” perspective about toxic waste dumps that severely limits where you can store it. Fourth, since the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, every other nation has committed to reduce coal consumption. So American coal exports will also decline next decade.
Just as the publishing industry is adjusting to the Internet, the coal industry has to adjust to green energy.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Natural Gas
After natural gas is extracted from the ground, it is treated to remove hydrogen sulfide, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and moisture. When burned, it produces significantly less GHG and toxic emissions than coal and oil. America has abundant natural gas and a British Thermal Unit (BTU) of energy from natural gas is currently cheaper than a unit from coal, oil, biofuel, wind and solar energy.
The bad news is natural gas is only cleaner than coal and oil. Compared to wind, nuclear and hydroelectric energy, the gold standards for low emissions:
• Coal produces 34-41 times more GHG
• Oil produces 28 times more GHG
• Natural Gas produces 19 times more GHG
• Solar produces 3-4 times more GHG
The ugly news is, most of the easy to access natural gas has been extracted. Now companies are pursuing Risky Natural Gas via hydraulic fracturing called “fracking”. Fracking is an industrial process that pumps pressurized sand and toxic chemicals thousands of feet underground, then snakes out horizontally to break up miles of shale rock to release vast quantities of natural gas. The next stage of fracking sucks out natural gas and the toxic chemical-sand residue to the surface.
Fracking proponents are correct to claim that well-constructed and well-operated fracking plants are safe. Natural gas fracking also produces many good paying jobs.
Fracking Requires Tougher Federal Standards
Now some disgusting trends.
At current pace, our economy will remain dependent on deep water Risky Oil and fracking for Risky Natural Gas & Oil until 2050. All fracking companies do not operate at the same high standards and several state governments are partly to blame. In their rush to create jobs, Pennsylvania and other states give tax breaks to attract more fracking activity. As a result, wildcat companies have joined in the fracking bonanza.
From the long history of oil wells, we’ve learned that wildcatters often cut safety corners to maximize profits. Improper seals letting a small percentage of gases reach the surface are common to wells. As more wildcatters exploit lax and inconsistent state standards for seals and back-up systems, the probability of accidents causing a big leak into aquifers increases. Deep underground aquifers sometimes run for miles across state lines. For example, a fracking leak by a Pennsylvania operation could potentially affect aquifers running to western New York state, eastern Ohio and West Virginia.
The oil and natural gas industry prefers less federal fracking regulation. After watching the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe that required the federal government to both clean-up and fine BP, more people believe we must have tougher federal standards and inspection of this industry to prevent a fracking catastrophe.
For example, one best practice for deep underwater wells is to have a second emergency pipeline that can cut-over to limit oil spills. For that reason, some nations require a dual emergency pipeline for wells too deep for divers to reach. Periodic, but rigorous federal inspection would insure that the safety and cut-over procedures work, thereby preventing catastrophes. Even though fracking closer to the surface has been around for decades, there are gold, silver and bronze standards in operation. Given the risks of Risky Natural Gas and Risky Oil, America needs a better funded EPA to ensure that all fracking operates at a gold standard. The oil & natural gas industry can absorb 1% less profit for it.
Fracking has been linked to earthquakes. Fracking got so out of hand that Oklahoma lawmakers issued a new law to reduce it. That is why I argue that fracking should not be done within a 300-mile radius of a major earthquake fault.
Considering that corner-cutting by BP or its contractors triggered the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe and BP got hit with a $30 billion fine, the industry should view federal fracking fees and inspections as a Cost of Doing Business. After all, an underground fracking catastrophe without knowing who caused it could devastate the entire industry.
Risky Benefits of Nuclear Energy
Due to two meltdowns and a near meltdown at nuclear power plants and the nasty business of where to store spent radioactive fuel rods, I harbor a bias against nuclear energy. But since America is not in a secure energy and environmental security position, I have updated my perspective based on technology and safety advances of nextgen nuclear power plants that are smaller, require less cooling water, prevent meltdowns without human intervention, and reprocess spent radioactive fuel rods from early generation reactors.
As a result, I now understand that “Nextgen” nuclear reactors can deliver more advantages to America’s energy mix. No nation enjoys those advantages more than France, who produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. France is converting to nextgen nuclear reactors for these advantages:
• burn 80% less coal in 2020 than it burned in 1980
• enjoy lower energy costs for electric-powered transportation
• generate far less GHG & Smog emissions per capita than most advanced nations
• export less money per capita to buy foreign oil & natural gas
• imports more money by selling excess electricity to neighbors
• reprocesses uranium from nuclear bombs in nextgen nuclear reactors
My new perspective on nuclear energy was shaken when Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown occurred in 2011. No man-made protection could enable the coastal Fukushima nuclear plant to withstand a tsunami. In 2012, we also witnessed global warming creating Superstorm Sandy hitting unexpected places. Then I recalled the Great Flood of 1993 causing the Mississippi River to crest 45-50 feet high. Most climatologists forecast that the frequency and height of 25-year, 50-year and 100-year floods will increase.
These tragic events alert us to an important safety question. Can all U.S. nuclear power plants withstand a major flood or tsunami? Are they located away from earthquake zones and the likely path of hurricanes and tsunamis? Precautionary response to these events has led many pro-nuclear nations to recognize that over-dependance on nuclear energy is an invitation to catastrophe. Now Japan, France, Germany and Italy plan to dramatically reduce nuclear energy over the next 10-25 years.
We live in an era of increasing threats due to large earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and terrorism. All nuclear power plants near major earthquake faults, in a 100-year flood zone or tsunami zones need to be phased out. Old nuclear reactors in safe areas should be upgraded to nextgen reactors. The protection of all nuclear reactors needs to meet a higher security standard.
Hydroelectric & Geothermal Energy Are Renewable, Not Scalable
Hydroelectric dams produce about 3% of America’s electricity, but is not a solution that scales. America, has huge concerns about repairing 4,000 deficient dams and restoring ecosystems surrounding them. So America’s energy appetite has shifted away from new hydroelectric dams.
Geothermals are most cost effective when used as a local exchange for residential and commercial heating. In that manner, its renewable energy quality reduces local demand for electric and gas heating. For utility-grade electricity generation however, you would have to drill deeper for Higher Temperature Geothermals sufficient to fuel large-scale electric plants. As mentioned earlier, deep fracking whether for oil, natural gas or geothermals can release a lot of GHG by accident. Geothermal is not scalable to meet 1% of our electricity needs by 2030.
Wing, Solar & Biofuel Are Scalable
Wind energy supplies nearly 6% of our electricity and is ready for large scale deployment by utility companies. It needs more construction tax subsidy to reach higher until manufacturing volume that lets it compete/better compliment with natural gas as the replacement for coal-powered electric plants.
Germany, a top-tier country without many hydroelectric dams and fewer sunny days than America, is already meeting 25% of its electricity demand via wind energy. As it shutters coal and old nuclear power plants, Germany’s trajectory is towards mostly wind powering 50% of its electricity generation by 2030.
America has a lot more windy coastlines and mountain passes than Germany, so we can build an order of magnitude more wind energy. And we can do it with a positive total impact on birds.
Solar energy, extremely small GHG emissions, has consumer breakthrough promise as well. Last decade, solar panels only converted about 16% of the sun’s energy into electricity. Recent advances have pushed solar panel efficiency to 33%. American engineers are working to make batteries to store excess wind and solar energy even more efficient and less costly. As a result, most solar-powered households are adding wall-mounted battery storage units. As Cost per Watt of Solar Panels and their batteries reduces, each year it is becomes affordable to larger segments of the American economy. Current growth rates suggest that Solar Energy will grow from 1% of electric generation in 2016 to 8-10% by 2035. With proper federal incentive we can reach 10-12% by 2030.
Natural Gas & Renewable Energy Must Replace Coal & Oil
By viewing the global warming chart in Part 3, its clear that America is in a race against time to change the energy mix for electric power, transportation, industrial, residential and commercial demand sectors. Reducing imported oil is one of the few soundbites with bi-partisan appeal.
President Obama wanted to reduce imported oil to about 4 billion barrels of oil/year and putting 1 million electric-hybrid cars on the road by 2015, while boosting electricity from Green Energy to 25% by 2025. Given Congressional Republicans did not favor Obama’s goal, at best we can hope for more conversion to electric & hydrid cars and more states implementing wind, solar and biofuel energy. Rising gasoline prices, and climate change-related events will trigger America to accelerate oil reduction.
Compared to the 2011 U.S. Energy Sources Chart, that change in public motivation married to our terrestrial advantages could permit America to reach these “wish list” percentages:
Green Energy 2011: 9% 2030: 42%
Natural Gas 2011: 26% 2030: 35%
Oil 2011: 36% 2030: 15%
Nuclear 2011: 8% 2030: 8%
Coal 2011: 20% 2030: 0%
To approach this best case scenario, the 2021 President and Congress must remove industry incentives for Risky Natural Gas, Risky Oil and Dirty Coal consumption. The oil & natural gas industry should not receive more deepwater drilling permits until every current well can certify that they won’t cause another catastrophic leak. The next Congress and President should remove $11 billion/year in tax breaks received by oil, coal and natural gas. That additional tax revenue should spur faster development of Green Energy tax credits and advanced batteries for electric vehicles and home electricity storage units.
Rather than peddle snake oil that coal jobs are returning and that Risky Oil from fracking is desirable, we should help coal and oil workers transition to Green Energy jobs via education grants and tax susidies for Green Energy companies to open shop in large coal and oil districts.
America uses about 1.7 billion barrels of oil/year for the Industrial Sector. The Industrial sector tends to amortize heavy equipment and manufacturing lines over 25-30 years. If new tax policy helps them speed conversion to electricity and biofuel, Industrial use of oil can reduce to 1.0 billion barrels/year by 2030.