Saturday, October 6, 2007

Magic bullets for electricity miss their marks

Ever since Edison, commercial electric power has been linked with "magic bullets" that could somehow slay one or another economic or environmental dragon. All have missed their marks.

A prediction widely quoted in the 1940s and 1950s from the late Alvin Weinberg, former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said nuclear reactors would produce electricity "too cheap to measure." Like many scientists of his era, Weinberg grossly underestimated the costs of achieving safe operation. As true costs emerged from the late 1960s through the 1970s, prices of nuclear power-plants spiraled and orders dwindled. After the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 no new orders were placed, and most outstanding orders were cancelled. For about thirty years the U.S. nuclear power industry went into hibernation. Despite billions of dollars and more than four decades of effort, no reliable solution has yet been demonstrated for the long-term storage of nuclear waste.

Commercial electricity has long been promoted as "clean" power, but that can prove true only for people who live far from power-plants. All forms of concentrated energy production present environmental hazards. From the 1880s through the 1940s hydroelectric power was often promoted as an environmental ideal, minimizing its potential to destroy impounded and downstream habitat, devastate fish stocks, and create major hazards from dam collapse. Those concerns caused the Eisenhower administration to stop new commitments for federal dams and reservoirs. Hydroelectric power has remained stagnant since then in the United States, shrinking as a source of electricity from about 35 percent in 1940 to about 10 percent in 2005.

Natural gas has been used for power generation since the 1920s, particularly in the Southwest where, through the 1950s, it was sometimes "flared" as waste. It now dominates plans for new power plants, because permits can be easier to obtain than with other technologies. Saturation of the U.S. domestic supply in the 1970s led to growth of imports, mainly from Canada, Trinidad and Africa. As of 2005 imports totaled about 20 percent of consumption, with about 85 percent of imports coming from Canada. Leveling of Canadian production has led to demand for liquefied natural gas terminals along the coasts. As of 2005, the continental United States had only four such terminals, but applications had been filed for more than twenty new ones. While no major LNG accident has occurred in the U.S. since a Cleveland explosion killed 128 people in 1944, the potential for damage is high. A Sandia study in 2004 found that a major accident could demolish most buildings within a quarter mile and spread fires a mile or more away.

Pollution from coal-fired plants is probably the best known danger from generating electricity. Hazardous trace metals, including mercury, arsenic and cadmium, are deposited downwind. Nitrogen oxides create health hazards from ground-level ozone. Acid rain from sulfur oxides may fall hundreds to thousands of miles away. Coal-fired generators in the Midwest and Southeast have poisoned thousands of water bodies and forest areas across the eastern United States. Burning coal also releases more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per unit electricity than any other technology. Ash dumps provide readily mobilized sources of toxic metals and continue to contaminate water suppplies. In recent years, carbon dioxide sequestration has been proposed in former wells and mines. However, no pilot plant has been built, and no one has been able to prove that buried carbon dioxide will not leak to the atmosphere. The long-term confinement of gaseous pollutants may be as problematic as the long-term confinement of nuclear waste.

Hydrogen has been widely touted as an intermediate to store electrical energy, particularly for transportation. That is its least likely application. If hydrogen cannot be used effectively in stationary settings, where its storage is far easier, it has no future. Current efficiencies for converting electrical energy to and from hydrogen make it far too expensive as an energy reservoir. Since the 1890s the state-of-the-art has been pumped hydroelectric storage, with new systems estimated to recover almost 80 percent of input energy. An emerging competitor is the sodium-sulfur battery, with new units estimated to recover about 75 percent of input energy. The best of the current, practical technologies based on hydrogen recover less than 30 percent of input energy.

Several energy substitution technologies, including heat pumps and electric vehicles, aim to replace petroleum uses with commercial electricity. Promoters of these technologies typically claim that somehow electricity will be supplied with clean, renewable technology, without showing how such an outcome is to be guaranteed. If fact, the most likely results of such schemes are to burn coal instead of petroleum, generating more pollution and releasing more greenhouse gases than before. In the United States, the current lower-pollution sources of electricity, including hydroelectric, nuclear and wind, typically operate near maximum capacity because of costs or regulations. There is no surplus of such power. Growth in renewable sources has been well short of the recent growth in electricity use. Over the next two to three decades, other additions to electricity demands will most often be met by increased output from coal-powered generators, the main sources with current surplus capacity.

Improvements in energy production and use, including electricity, are far from impossible. Their history has shown, however, that improvements occur incrementally over decades. For example, average efficiency of electrical power generation increased by about a factor of six between 1900 and 1950, although the following fifty years saw only about 40 percent further improvement. However, efficiencies of both automobiles and commercial passenger aircraft improved by about a factor of two during fifty years beginning in the late 1950s. A little-known transportation miracle is that fuel consumption per passenger-mile for travel in an average sedan has not matched fuel consumption in a state-of-the-art, fully occupied commercial aircraft, unless an automobile has carried three or more passengers.

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