Tangled Up in Green: A Tale of Two Energies

  • Published on March 6th, 2008

coal2.JPG

Editor’s note: Welcome to “Tangled Up in Green,” Red, Green and Blue’s weekly debate over the hot issues in environmental politics. Each week, writers Ranjit Arab and Adam Bowman will “throw down the glove” on current events involving environmental policy, legislation and citizen action. Adam and Ranjit are both graduate students in journalism at the University of Kansas, and currently enrolled in Professor Simran Sethi’s “Media and the Environment” course.

In Holcomb, Kansas, there rages a battle over energy, jobs, and economy.

The Sunflower Electric Company has a plan to build two coal-fired power plants that would produce 1400 megawatts of power. And until the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), Roderick L. Bremby, denied the application for an air quality permit, they probably would be breaking ground right now.

People in the more populated Eastern part of Kansas, (which is pretty much all powered by coal), want to abandon the coal for sustainable wind energy. For Kansas, wind makes a lot of sense. Wind maps show that we are sitting in a very productive wind energy area. Basically any state in the Great Plains has an abundance of wind at their disposal. And the good news is, there isn’t any waste emissions or land ruining strip mining to harvest this energy.

But what about Eastern and Western States that aren’t sitting on a wind gold mine?

Kenneth Defeyes writes in his book, Beyond Oil, that coal, “is the best of fuels; it is the worst of fuels.”

Coal is cheap. (Not including the environmental costs.) And more importantly, we have the largest reserve in the world. Which means that we aren’t in conflict with foreign countries for our energy. We can dictate the costs.

Coal is the dirtiest of dirty energies. From excavation to consumption, it pollutes. There have been many advances in reducing the amount of mercury and sulfur dioxide emitted by coal plants. But they still contribute to the majority of green house gas emissions in the world. In 2004, 10 billion tons of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of coal. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get rid of the best of fuels worst byproducts?

There has been a buzzword in fossil fuels lately, clean coal.

At the National Governor’s Association annual winter meeting, energy was at the heart of the event. Governors from coal-rich states say it is irresponsible not to have coal in the energy debate. They put a lot of stock in new technologies to curb the emissions from coal. There is a lot of skepticism however, from Governors of renewable energy rich states, and environmentalists.

One clean coal technology already in use is coal gasification. It basically boils the coal into gaseous elements. These can then easily be separated and used for other purposes. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of uses for CO2. However, Basin Electric in North Dakota has found a buyer for their waste.

PanCanadian Petroleum is pumping the gas into porous rock about a mile underground. This forces oil out of the rock. Pumping CO2 into the ground is called carbon dioxide sequestering. Essentially, in this case, it takes a fossil fuel, uses its energy, and then puts back into the ground the useless parts for more fossil fuels. It also extends the life of the oil well.

And if we are ever fortunate enough to wean our selves off of oil, it is estimated that there is enough porous rock not containing oil underground to sequester every bit of CO2 emissions for centuries.

Another new discovery is using re-engineered simple organisms to feed on CO2 and emit methane that can then be used for fuel. Scientists expect this technology to be up and working in about 18 months. However, this may cause more problems than it solves. There is little known about the side effects of genetic engineering. The point is that people are working on the problem because coal may need to be in our future.

In the larger picture of energy, there is no one answer, or even two answers. Wind is a fantastic option, but it won’t work for everywhere. Reducing energy consumption is part of the solution, but in a consumer society, it is a hard sell. Nuclear is potentially catastrophic, plus there isn’t a useful thing to do with the waste. Solar is expensive and not as efficient as we need it to be yet. Coal is cheap, it’s here, and we control it. With new technologies, we may be able to truly clean coal consumption.

The exciting thing is that all these options come with a ton of jobs, and economic growth. So at least that part of the puzzle can be answered. It just comes down to: what do we want to invest in for the future, and what do we have to invest in for the present?

About the Author

I am a graduate student in the school of Journalism at the University of Kansas. I got my bachelors in 2001 from UC San Diego in film. I am currently taking a class in Media and the Environment taught by the world renowned eco-journalist Simran Sethi. I love debating environmental issues to try and find solutions to some of our societies most pressing questions.
  • You are right, Adam. In its current state of development, wind will not solve all of our energy needs, and even the biggest wind advocates will agree with that. But, it can and should be used when and where it is available, and it is available right now in Kansas. Western Kansas has a fantastic wind resource that has gone largely undeveloped.

  • Energy is never a simple question. Wind should be on the table for Western Kansas, and all of the Great Plains states. But wind will not solve all of our energy needs.

    Although CO2 emissions seem like a black and white issue, the complexity of the energy industry is not.

    Should we put all our energy eggs into the wind basket? What if, through unforeseen events, we have a wind shortage? Or it turns out that an abundance of wind turbines kills too many birds.

    We are having problems in the Automobile industry because we placed our bet on oil. Instead of diversifying our auto energy sources, we are at the mercy of oil.

    Now, wind is hardly oil. And it should continue to be used. I just don't think it will solve all our energy problems.

  • ranjit

    Clean coal…a term most likely brought to us by the same marketing geniuses that gave us “friendly fire,” and “gourmet fast food.”

    I realize that there are cleaner ways of generating energy from coal, but those methods still leave an awful lot to be desired. With minimal government regulation in place (although serious reform is expected in the near future), this “clean” coal simply doesn’t go far enough to offset environmental hazards.

    In the specific case of Holcomb, the proposed plants will generate far more energy than residents of western Kansas need. This surpluss will be sold off to neighboring Colorado and to Texas–and yet all of the waste will remain right here. So, what are the true costs of over-producing this coal energy? Some people will benefit with new jobs, money in local economies, etc., but why should we, as a state, carry the burden of supplying others with energy at the expense of our own water?

    The environmentalists’ mantra has always been: Think Globally, Act Locally, and the Holcomb case is no exception. Right now, we can’t worry about how east/west coast states will get their energy…we can only focus on how we’ll get it in Kansas. Why ruin our air, our water, invite trainloads of coal into our state on a daily basis, while shouldering all of the hazads (giving other states a free ride)? How this is even debatable is beyond me.

    In fact, Kansas is not alone in its rejection of the coal plants. National trends indicate that coal is no longer viewed as a reliable long-term solution:

    Between 2000 and 2006, over 150 coal plant proposals were fielded by utilities in the United States. By the end of 2007, 10 of those proposed plants had been constructed, and an additional 25 plants were under construction. But during 2007 a large number of proposed plants were cancelled, abandoned, or put on hold: 59 according to the list below. Several conclusions can be drawn from this tally.

    Look, I’m all for creating new jobs, and allowing western Kansas to meet its energy demands. Like you say, though, both can be done through the promotion of alternative sources.

    This is simply a question of one powerful electric company–with several legislators in its pockets–trying to force us to accept a coal-powered plant that will be with us for the next 50 years even though that technology is quickly becoming obsolete.

    –Ranjit