This is my entry in the Tommywonk Energy Essay Contest. Please create your own entry, but feel free to use mine in any way you see fit.
We tend to have this vision of energy as a rare and wonderfully complicated thing. In reality, we see energy in almost everything. Poets write lovingly of the sun on their faces, the wind in their hair and the surf pounding on the shore. All of these are energy.
We have created energy by burning things since the discovery of fire. It is a simple and powerful model that we have harnessed in amazing ways: from a massive network of interconnected power grids to putting men on the moon. But our simple model is beginning to fail us.
The problem that we now face is twofold. First, the scale at which we burn things is doing damage to our planet. Whether one agrees with global warming or not, pollution’s effects on the planet and humans is unchallenged. Second, the things that we burn these days are finite. Whether you believe that we have 50 or 100 years of fossil fuels, you must believe that we will run into a situation where the scarcity of the fuels will, in the foreseeable future, impact our way of life in profound ways.
The amount of pollutants released by coal plants is sizable. One of the stories that I find most illustrative of this point occurred several years ago during a massive power outage. The power grid failed spectacularly on August 14th, 2003 blacking out huge portions of the Northeastern U.S. As a result, over 100 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio valley went offline and stopped burning fuel.
Researchers from the University of Maryland recognized this as a rare opportunity to look at the immediate effects of taking coal power plants offline. They analyzed the air east of the Ohio River by airplane. The highlights are:
- Sulphur dioxide levels in Pennsylvania down 90%
- Ozone levels in Pennsylvania down 50%
- Particle light scattering was down by 70%
- NOx emissions from power plants down 20%
- SO2 emissions from power plants down by a third
- Visibility was increased by 20 miles
- In Washington, DC, a predicted “Code-Red” air quality rating never materialized
These are the effects of just 24 hours offline. The effects are immediate and close to home. Imagine if we could take those plants offline 100 days a year. Or 200 days a year. These are achievable goals.
Fossil fuels are finite. In many cases they are not yet scarce, but their increasing scarcity has influenced geopolitics and global economics, caused massive environmental losses and cost thousands of lives in the defense of the free movement of fuel. Oil may have already peaked in production. If not, the growing demand of China, India and Europe are certain to hasten a day of reckoning. “Peak Oil” may be decades off, but it is coming and we will need to be ready.
While the scarcity of coal is nowhere near the situation with oil, it hosts its own issues. Environmental impacts of mining, health effects on miners, and loss of earth formations through mountaintop removal all extract a high price. In addition, there have been discussions of “carbon taxes” that could add an artificial cost to monetize the actual environmental damage done by massive CO2 emissions.
Natural gas is dealing with a scarcity problem as well as a transport issue. The estimated world reserves of energy from natural gas is just over half of that of oil. Pipelines carry natural gas across this country and the price increases as you move away from Texas due to the length of the pipeline. We are not close to Texas. Anyone that has been reading the papers in the past few years knows the issues that alternative methods of transporting natural gas are difficult to complete, especially here in Delaware.
There are non-polluting, virtually inexhaustible sources of energy available. These harness geology and astrophysical sources of energy to convert to electricity. Gravity drives hydro-power and tidal turbines. The sun drives photovoltaics, heat-exchangers and even wind turbines. Neither of these sources are in danger of exhaustion in the foreseeable future. And if they did, we have much bigger problems.
Finally, there are fusion and fission to harness the energy that is elemental to this universe. Ultimately these may be the answer, but the technology has not yet developed to a point that they are technologically and/or politically feasible.
Of the three proposals on the table for the first state of the union, only one is based on a view forward to a day when energy and environmental concerns are in balance. The proposed wind farm would harness 1/3 of the available energy to be harvested in the Delaware offshore. Additional fields can be installed down the road to actually feed additional energy into the grid. Even if we can turn off some of the Ohio Valley power plants a few days a week. We are making our air cleaner, our water safer, our citizens healthier and our sky bluer.
Delaware has an opportunity to install a forward-thinking, fixed cost, aesthetically pleasing and safe power plant. We should grab this opportunity and make a bold statement to the rest of the states that there is a reason that we are the first state. As with the ratification of the Constitution, we as a people, know a good deal when we see it. We know when to stand up first and say “I’m in.” This is that time.