“Electricity-water collisions” is a term that’s reportedly been around a couple years, but it hasn’t had much attention. Summer 2012 may change that. According to a post by a Union of Concerned Scientist’s senior climate and energy analyst, Erika Spanger-Siegfried, “Our electricity system, it turns out, wasn’t built for summers like 2012, and it showed.”
Summer 2012 proved, or at least strengthened, the dual argument that global warming is real, and continued operation of air conditioners in an effort to pretend otherwise is not a divinely declared certainty.
In mid-August, a few days after a nuclear power unit in Connecticut was shut down because Long Island Sound had become too warm to cool the plant and not kill every creature in that part of the ocean, Spanger-Siegfried said she was processing data about the national electricity-water collision. From Connecticut to Georgia, and across the nation to Nevada, warm water and low river flows had caused at least partial shutdowns at nuclear and coal-fired electricity generating plants.
Last week, she published the results in a blog, including among the additional information partial shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, making it the first New England nuclear electricity generator forced to cut it’s power – by nearly 20 percent – for a week, by too-warm and too-little water in the Connecticut River. (Read the complete blog at The Equation.)
“So where do we go from here?” Spanger-Siegfried asks, then answers, “Straight toward water-smart energy choices. And chief among those: low- and no-water energy choices that are also (given the climate connection) low-carbon.”
The findings make ever more clear the need for switching from fossil fuel to something a little not only cleaner but, considering the apparent warming of our climate, more reliable.
When bodies decay above ground, they release their carbon in relatively small amounts; the farther we stand from them, the less we detect their malodorous emanations. But when we dredge them up from below ground and burn them, we release large amounts of them into the atmosphere, where, comprising mostly carbon dioxide, they creates a blanket around the planet. It is what we have been doing for more than a century with coal, and it’s what we’re doing now, albeit with seemingly less offensiveness, with natural gas.
Like a down comforter in which one wraps herself on a cold winter night, the planet’s blanket makes people warm, causes weathermen to proclaim nice days for picnicking, and shuts down the electricity that keeps our air conditioners and computers running.
Nuclear energy is even worse, according to many scientists and politicians. Once thought to be the cleanest, most efficient fuel possible, it has been revealed to be as dangerous, potentially more dangerous, than fossil fuels. When we burn coal, we pile up toxic ash that pollutes our waterways – but at least there’s a chance that within the span of a few human generations, if we stop adding to the ash pile, maybe it will become sufficiently diluted that it stops killing people.
Plutonium – the waste from nuclear power plants we often hear connected to terrorists and suitcase bombs, is more dangerous in its persistency. More than 24,000 years from when it is deposited wherever we decide to put it, it will still be half as potent as when it was removed from the reactor. If the containers in which we decide to store it start leaking, 800 human generations from now, it will be small comfort to those people affected that they will only be half as dead.
For the time being, we are storing nuclear waste at the plants where it is created – a fact which has nuclear energy opponents, a large number of scientists, and even some judges – concerned. The U.S. Department of Energy was considering digging a hole in a Nevada mountain, but that idea received so much bad publicity that DOE ceased consideration of the mountain, and Congress pulled funding for even researching other depositories.
So if nuclear is bad, and coal only less so, and natural gas somewhere between on the human risk scale, what can we do?
Near term, we can invest in wind and solar. Both are capable of generating electricity for many towns and smaller cities, and neither befouls the air with the effluent common to burning stuff.
But wind and solar cannot, at least so far, completely replace coal and nuclear as fuel for electricity generation. In the longer view, we must convince investors to put their profit-hopes in wind, solar and technologies of which we have not yet dreamed, with tax-funded subsidies, if necessary. Research into, and potential profits and jobs from, future technologies seems a far better use of our money than the billions we currently put into matured technologies that are, with increasing alacrity, killing us with such curses as increased cancer rates, breathing difficulties – and, dying fisheries.
Photo by NASA
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