Climate activists and environmentally aware people are always shouting about the need for our society to immediately stop relying on harmful fuel sources like nuclear and coal for electricity generation. We demand the government "do something — now!" But I'd guess that not many of us know what it would actually take — the nitty gritty numbers about, say, existing stations' lifespans, transmission capacity, average wind speeds, population forecasting, market risk assessments ... you get the idea. Sure, in Utah, the governor has recently come up with his own "energy plan
," but it's more like an apology for fossil fuels and how we are going to need them, than a technical roadmap to a survivable future.
A few years ago, at a meeting of HEAL Utah
(Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah), the question "how exactly would we transition into renewable energy and keep the lights on at the same time?" made the lights go on for former Executive Director Vanessa Pierce
. "Let's commission a study to find out!" (I don't know what she really said. I wasn't there. Forgive me, Vanessa.)
I met eUtah at its unveiling during a special fall fundraising event on Dec. 14. The primary author of the study, Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D
., regaled the slightly buzzed room full of shiny-eyed enviros with his vision of what it would take for a state, Utah in this case, to change its electricity generation over the next 40 years. He chose to use five scenarios to help illustrate his hypotheses. I will be talking with the good doctor on my radio program
tonight, so be on the lookout for updates.
eUtah's five scenarios, CliffsNotes-style:
(Skip down to scenario 5
for the star of the show.)
Scenario 1. Business-as-usual (BAU):
Coal is still king, and coal-fired power plants are replaced within 60 years with new ones. This is a reference scenario to show how the other scenarios stack up against maintaining the status quo. Guess what, it isn't as cheap as you might assume to go down this road. Peak coal
is a-comin', not to mention the cost of deteriorating public health and, um, climate change.
Scenario 2. Nuclear + coal, with carbon capture and storage:
This is what industry wants if it has to do something about CO2 and such. According to the eUtah study, in 40 years this scenario could reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent relative to now. Of course, here we are assuming carbon capture and storage is feasible, in the future, which anyone who is paying attention knows it not to be at present. Then there's the idea that nuclear is even a possibility in our state. Sure it is, but it would suck a good portion of our second-biggest river out and lose it to evaporation. Being the second-driest state in the nation, that's a no. The nuclear lobby has a gazillion unreadable
reasons why they are the only hope for curbing global warming, but the truth is, there are more problems
than solutions with nuclear.
Scenario 3. Renewables + natural gas + carbon capture and storage: With an increase in efficiency factored in, the study says they can help us reduce CO2 output by 93 percent by 2050 in this scenario. Again, assuming CCS (trapping carbon underground) works.
Scenario 4. Renewables + natural gas: CO2: This scenario sees reductions of only 70 percent, by using solar, wind and geothermal generation, supplanted by a big pack of natural gas fired power plants. This assumes things that use electricity become much more efficient in the next 40 years (which makes the reductions look better, because less power is generated relative to our inefficient toasters and driers now).
Scenario 5. The eUtah 100 percent renewable scenario:
This plan deploys typical renewable energy sources, such as geothermal wind, and solar generation. But that's not all. It can't be — without a whole lot of geothermal (a "baseload" power source), there would be blackouts, because, as they say, the sun don't always shine and the wind don't always blow. So Chef Makhijani, Ph.D., has traveled the globe to find a secret ingredient with which he advises we tie this clean electron meal to together: Compressed Air Energy Storage
. It doesn't sound very tasty, but it works in Germany.
Here's CAES: Either you use a gas-powered device to suck air out on the sky and into underground caverns until there's lots of pressure down there, then, when you need a shot of baseload power, you let it out and heat it up a bit, which goes through turbines and all that to make electrons for your thirsty grid. The wind blows at night, too, when demand for electricity is down, so that power could be used to blow up the underground bubble for later use. It's kind of like a backup battery.
So there are possible plans for the next 40 years, simplified to the point of near unreadability. There are a lot of assumptions in them. What about the next, say, three years? What can we do right now to make a dent in the CO2 output of our state (or yours)?
The eUtah study recommends four things:
1. Be more energy efficient.
Duh. But, if we do implement higher building efficiency standards
, then it can make a gigantic difference in how much juice we use. That's less coal that'll be turned into a blanket for the planet, and it's a ridiculously cheap option.
2. Build more geothermal. I would, if I knew how. Wouldn't you? Why don't we? Let's do!
3. Build a pilot project of the fancy CAES that we talked about above.
4. Create an Electricity Research Center in Utah
, that will serve as the sort of MIT of electricity research, and use it to launch ambitious pilot projects, such as turning the Utah city of St. George
into a experimental smart-grid
This all sounds like a lot of work. The average person just wants their lights to come on, and for it to cost less than cable TV. But the costs of catastrophic climate change
and the public health burden
for diseases caused by burning dirty fuels, not to mention the dwindling supply of coal, need to be brought into the smoggy daylight to slap Average Joe into paying attention. (A Utah state government commissioned study
of the health effects of coal-fired power found that it kills 202 Utahns each year. The coal-friendly government quickly distanced itself from the findings.)
We have a lot of work to do, but it must be done, and the eUtah study
suggests that proactively creating a renewable energy Renaissance might not only be the safest way, but the easiest as well.
Photo: HEAL Utah