Tuesday, December 18, 2007

bad energy

Several related articles in the New York Times Business scetion today illustrate what's wrong with the new energy paths we're about to embark on (As a New Fuel Takes Its First Steps, Congress Proposes a Giant Leap" by Clifford Krauss). Gasoline in our cars, and coal powered electrical generating plants have got to go, but ethanol and clean coal are not acceptable alternatives.

Ethanol from corn means that we switch farm land now used to produce food, to produce energy instead. This decreases food production and raises the cost of food. Thus the page one headline "Food and Energy Compete for Land, Perhaps for Years" is answered with this headline from page 5, "World Food Supply is Shrinking, U.N. Agency Warns." Furthermore ethanol is not a clean fuel so using it to power our cars continues to produce greenhouse gases. The only problem ethanol addresses is reducing our dependence on foreign oil. That's a worthwhile objective, but a goal that can be met in other ways without the food shortage and greenhouse gas problems of ethanol.

The other new energy idea comes on page 3, "New Type of Coal Plant Moves Ahead, Haltingly." The new type of coal plant is one that burns coal to produce hydrogen gas, a clean fuel, but also carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. So what's clean about "clean coal?" Instead of releasing the gas into the air the coal plant will bury the gas underground in a process called sequestering. I can't imagine that sequestering would ever work as a long term solution to the problem of greenhouse gases. How do you permanently store a gas underground. I can just see the headlines 5 , 10 or 20 years from now as the gas we thought was sequestered begins to filter up and out into the atmosphere. It would be worth a try if we had no other option but we do have options.

We have a great source of energy widely available, in the US, that doesn't require re-purposing ariable land away from food production and produces zero greenhouse gases: wind power. Wind farms can produce energy anywhere the wind blows so we don't need to give up farmland. Electric cars could be powered up with wind-generated electricity. Wind power and electric car technology aren't perfect at this stage - but neither is ethanol or so-called "clean coal." if we spent our resources on developing wind power we would actually move toward an energy solution that doesn't simply shift the problem to a different area or a future date.

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