Will Coal or Renewables Fuel Our Future?
The ongoing tragedy in Japan likely means that nuclear will play a smaller part in our energy future, both in the U.S. and globally. This is for psychological and political reasons, as much as rational concerns. The rational argument is that no matter how small the risk of a nuclear meltdown, the result can be cataclysmic. A reactor close to New York City, for instance, has been estimated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have a 1 in 10,000 chance of catastrophic failure due to an earthquake. The odds of failure at other reactors are even smaller, and the increasing number of nuclear reactors and the fact that they’ll be running for an uncertain amount of time into an unknown future, makes the risk that much greater. Add in that we can’t know how well they’ll be maintained or what circumstances will surround them, and add to that the possibility of other unforeseen events, from a meteor strike to political upheaval, and the danger gets worse.
Then there are the realities of a catastrophic meltdown: radiation covering a huge swath of territory—often in major urban areas—sickening people, making habitation impossible for the foreseeable future. And there remains the problem of where to store nuclear waste which remains dangerous for centuries if not millennia.
In light of the climate crisis, many environmentalists, myself included, had begun to reconsider nuclear since it has virtually no carbon emissions, and its safety track record since Three Mile Island has been superb. However, the earthquake and tsunami that wracked Japan, while an extraordinarily rare event, has wiped away the chance of a new political consensus for nuclear.
The Continued Push for Coal
What will replace it? The coal lobby will argue that coal is cheap and abundant. The U.S. is estimated to have enough coal reserves to power the country for 146 years (even accounting for growing use). Coal advocates will also argue that it can be made safe and clean, particularly as technology for Carbon Capture and Storage comes online. By capturing carbon emissions and burying them deep underground, so the argument goes, coal will no longer contribute to global warming.
The problem is that this is an unknown technology, one likely to be expensive, and that such buried emissions may leak out, or be released in the event of earthquakes or other events. Ocean storage is another possibility, but one with unknown environmental effects. In essence, continuing to burn coal in increasing quantities means that we’re conducting a giant experiment on our planet.
Aside from carbon, coal has environmental impacts at every stage, from mining through burning. Mining releases sulfuric acid, as well as the greenhouse gas methane. Mountaintop removal does irreparable harm to the environment, pollutes watersheds and drinking water with carcinogens and heavy metals and leaving sludge and slurry ponds in its wake. Transportation also uses fuel, while the final burning emits sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and other emissions, such as arsenic, contributing to lung cancer and other health hazards. As Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club says, “From the mine to the plant, to the ash pond, coal is our dirtiest energy source. It causes asthma and other health problems, destroys our mountains, and releases toxic mercury into our communities. Continuing our dependence on coal chains us to dirty energy and prevents us from making the changes we need to bring about a clean, secure energy future.”
Taking Renewables Seriously
The answer, then, is renewable energy, which is closer to ready than most people think. As I argued on February 9 (https://emagazine.com/blog/we-can-cut-greenhouse-gases-to-zero-but-we-probably-wont), a combination of wind, solar thermal, photovoltaic, and geothermal energy, combined with an expanded and smarter electrical grid and greater energy efficiency could cut our emissions from electrical production near to zero. The technology is ready, if only we were willing to invest in the future and make the leap to a comprehensive system. Environmental skeptics see such a plan as utopian, put forward by dreamy treehuggers. Yet those same skeptics think nothing of the technological problems of cleaning up coal and mining it from ever more difficult-to-reach sources. They consider themselves the hard-eyed realists, yet are always willing to take the leap of faith when it comes to dangerous, destructive technologies such as coal, nuclear and oil.
In both the Deepwater oil spill and the Japanese catastrophe, we’ve seen the effects of such “realism.” A major accident at a wind farm, on the other hand, would cause virtually no environmental harm. A crash program to convert fully to renewable is undoubtedly expensive and will have its setbacks. Yet “clean” coal and nuclear are also expensive, technically difficult operations. Renewables, however, do not cause decades or centuries of irreparable environmental harm and pervasive health risks. In the 21st century, it seems, the environmentalists are the actual realists, and those who insist on fossil fuels and nuclear energy the delusional utopians.