Friday, October 2, 2009

Comes Back to Bite Itself

Alternative energy and "green power" are labels for less destructive methods of producing the energy our country needs to keep things running. Yet even solar and photovoltaic energy harnessing have a downside in the water equation. Consumption of water resources, particularly including electrical power generation systems currently in use, is a huge factor in establishing the feasibility of, and the true environmental cost of, producing energy. Nuclear power has major issues with water consumption and the heat generation dumped into the environment.

Some problems associated with nuclear power are much discussed – such as its connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Less well known is the fact that nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35-65 million litres of water each day. A map of reactor sites is maintained here by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it shows that the western US is not reliant on nuclear sources in the same way that the eastern US has been, probably because water is only abundant on the coasts (note reactor locations there).

Of further interest on energy sources in the US is a map and charts I generated on "Many Eyes" from a database from the US Dept. of energy. It shows the many different kinds of power generation across the US, and it's interesting that coal and nuclear are prevalent in the east,. The newer sources in the west rely on gas and geothermal, which are cleaner, but there's a substantial reliance on oil. This points to a possible strategy in converting power generation to cleaner methods being the most effective on the east coast, with changes in the use of oil in the western US being the biggest potential for "greening" power sources. Bottom line -
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in their latest (2007) energy generation report, lists costs for:
  • coal and nuclear - 4.5 cents per kWh
  • geothermal - 6.5 cents per kWh
  • natural gas - 7 cents per kWh
  • petroleum - 10 cents per kWh
  • solar - 18 cents per kWh
A web mag blog that discusses the impact of Nuclear Synfuel proposes an interesting scenario for using the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere to address some of these issues. This is "future science", but presents some interesting possibilities. I keep reminding myself that all energy transformations - heat, power, chemical structure - impact the closed system that's our environment, which has a limited constraint of energy balance. Continual, growing processes that dump heat in all its forms that exceed the system's ability to absorb it will simply push it to failure.