How to Cut Carbon Emissions and Not the Economy

Photo Credit – Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri

President Obama has directed the EPA to issue new rules to the 600 coal burning power plants in the United States. This fiat move under the Clean Air Act is intended to reduce carbon emissions 30% and allow the U.S. to meet United Nations negotiated carbon emissions from 2009.

Needless to say, coal states have cried foul and the Chamber of Commerce says this will negatively impact our economy to the tune of $50 billion per year.

Keep in mind that the U.S. has already reduced carbon emissions from the 2005 benchmark of 6 billion metric tons of CO2 to 5.29 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2012 (source: USDOE), mostly through the switch to cheap natural gas.

I want clean air and clean water for me and my children as much as anyone.

Coal is a dirty fuel source. It creates pollution during mining, pollution during transport, pollution during the energy production, and pollution in the waste storage.

Coal is the number one source of toxic mercury pollution. Mercury is an acute neurotoxin that builds up in the environment and builds up in your body over time. Coal is also a major source of sulfur dioxide pollution.

But is this the right move? Are we focusing on the right issues? Is carbon a greater threat to my children’s health or is mercury and sulfur?

Toxic Pollution

I care more about the immediate effects of toxic pollution like mercury and sulfur, more than the debatable topic of carbon pollution.

Shockingly, nearly 30% of coal power plants have no controls for toxic air pollution which we can quickly fix in a way that is economically sound. The coal power plant pollution chain can readily be cleaned up.

For example, Constellation Energy has a very large, 1,300 megawatt coal power plant just outside Baltimore called the Brandon Shores plant. They quickly built a scrubber to meet new Maryland rules, breaking ground in June 2007 and completing the work in September, 2009. There were up to 1,385 construction workers building this upgrade, at a cost $875 million, and the power plant remains profitable.

The scrubber – a large chemical plant next to the plant – cuts 95 percent of the sulfur dioxide and 90 percent of the mercury. 

So why did the President leave out cleaning up toxic pollution? Why not talk about carbon capture and storage (CCS) or geothermal power?

Sadly, neither is likely to get the attention they deserve in this heated debate.

Carbon Capture and Storage

CCS is, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “where carbon dioxide is captured at its source (e.g., power plants, industrial processes) and subsequently stored in non-atmospheric reservoirs (e.g., depleted oil and gas reservoirs, unmineable coal seams, deep saline formations, deep ocean).”

There are numerous CCS projects in the works, but it has been a secondary approach to carbon emissions. A properly functioning CCS power plant produces fewer carbon emissions than even a natural gas plant. Should this technology mature, retrofits to existing coal plants would become viable.

Geothermal Energy

The holy grail of reducing any energy production pollution that has been in use, and widely ignored, for over 50 years is geothermal energy.

Geothermal, simply put, uses the heat in the earth a couple of kilometers down (shallower than some oil wells) to heat water, which makes steam, which turns turbines, producing electricity. Take a look HERE for a video and description.

Any environmentalist who actually cares about what they claim, should be pushing geothermal far before wind or solar. Made in the USA, reliable (even more than a coal plant), doesn’t require any exotic materials or technology, and produces little to no pollution, geothermal is really the greatest answer to our energy needs.

Why isn’t the President talking about geothermal? Money. Too many of his donors have vested interests in the false promise of solar and wind technologies (which are perfectly fine for off-grid uses). There simply isn’t enough money to be made by his donors producing reliable, clean geothermal power.

If this administration or those in the environmental movement really want to reduce emissions of any pollutants, they need to look at how the economy will function in a manner that supports many aspects of our country and actually admit what is the truth in their goals.

Inconsistencies Regarding Clean Energy

Watch the video above. It was presented to me as a great David versus Goliath story of “green” energy triumphing over Xcel Energy in Boulder, Colorado.

There are so many problems with the video, I simply cannot address them all.

Starting off, the wildfires in Colorado are presented as if there have never been worse fires. This is a complete falsehood that media outlets are perpetrating due to a lack of historical knowledge. Did you know that wildfires were actually worse before the European settlers? Native Americans intentionally burned large amounts of North America and did it regularly to alter the ecosystem. So much for tabula rasa regarding the indigenous people. Also there is significant evidence for the argument that settlers actually helped reduce forest fires and our movement toward naturalism in our forests have exacerbated the fires.

There are also two primary problems in “clean” energy: what is your definition of clean energy, and is the clean energy proposed a baseload power source. For all that video does to market what Boulder is doing, they ignore that coal plants are only being replaced by natural gas plants due to the reduced cost of natural gas for the power companies. As Michelle Kinman, Clean Energy Advocate for Environment California said on my show, no coal plant has been shut down in California with all of our clean energy mandates.

I suggest the entire environmental movement has been taken by other big money interests as there are hundreds of billions of dollars per year to be made in solar and wind. The subsidies for those industries are enormous and we still don’t have energy storage addressing when the sun isn’t shining and/or the wind isn’t blowing. Let alone the environmental damage happening in China (out of sight, out of mind anyone?) due to rare earth mineral mining, theft of the entire solar panel industry, and the massive pollution due to transportation of those Chinese-made solar panels all the way across the Pacific Ocean to our shores.

That’s right, are you going to turn off your television, computer, refrigerator, power charger, lights, microwave, and more when the sun goes behind a cloud or the wind dies down? This is the elephant in the room regarding non-baseload power sources. Thus we still need coal, oil, and nuclear power plants.

Everyone seems to ignore geothermal as the only clean, baseload power source that emits no pollution at all. And that is because there isn’t enough money to be made from geothermal, unlike solar and wind. 

Lastly, none of the above address the fundamental problem of a centralized power grid. Why not move to a neighborhood grid model where neighborhoods are in control and can choose what is best for them? For example, this solid oxide fuel cell could power a whole neighborhood. Or your development might choose solar panels on every roof, a windmill near the community pool, and a natural gas generator behind the pond, without ever connecting to the grid.

Think of the possibilities we can accomplish when relegating stale ideas to the trash bin and begin to creatively approach the problems we face. It is possible to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbons, but blind faith to a dogmatic approach should best be left to religion and not energy policy.

EDIT 09/03/2013 – I almost forgot another major problem with the Chinese stealing the solar panel business, a horrible defect rate of up to 22 percent. So now the environmentally damaging Chinese panels will possibly fail in two years instead of the promised 25 year lifespan. Don’t take my word for it, this information is from the New York Times.  Also, those giant solar plants in the desert are not only sucking up preciously scarce water resources, but killing endangered birds. Water birds are turning up dead. Stick with solar and wind for off-grid where buying the battery banks make sense. But grid-interconnect, no.