Okay, in my last post I came out as a global warming skeptic. However, here's some good news for those of you who worry about our carbon emissions: we have a safe alternative that produces no greenhouse gasses.
I've been googling this evening trying to find the total percentage of American carbon dioxide output that comes from coal. Unfortunately, I'm finding wildly varied numbers--anything from 35% to 85%. I can't believe the internet is giving me fuzzy information!
Whatever the actual figures are, I can tell you this: your house has a bigger carbon footprint than your car. We think of electricity as "clean" energy. If you have an electric furnace and an electric water heater, stove, etc., you might feel pretty smug about the fact that your house has no chimney. In fact, though, most electricity in America is generated by burning coal, and the emissions from that coal equal far more carbon than is being put out by all the automobiles in the US. Again, I keep finding different numbers--as low as 9%, as high as 25%.
We can't all stop driving in the next decade. If we switch to electric cars that are recharged at home, we'll be pushing the pollution from a tailpipe to a smokestack, but if we're still burning coal, it does little in the long run to reduce CO2. And, even if we perfect the electric car, we aren't going to perfect an electric airplane anytime soon, and all those big trucks on the highway are still going to be rolling on diesel. Electric cars might make acceptable short range commuter vehicles, but we are a long ways away from having a battery that would propel an 18 wheeler five hundred miles on a charge.
Fortunately, oil has jumped to $120 a barrel and could go higher. (Fortunately if you believe in global warming, that is.) This means that price alone is going to change people's driving habits. And, I predict that as $4 gasoline sets in, you're going to see more and more cars in production that are real fuel sippers. The Honda Insight hybrid gets almost 70mpg. I predict we'll see a 100mpg commuter car hit the market within the next 5 years. Maybe that's overly optimistic, but right now you can count all your 50mpg choices on the fingers of one hand. Give it five years, and you'll need both hands and some of your toes, too.
So, higher fuel costs will eventually cut down carbon emissions from vehicles. But, as noted, this is, maybe, 25% of the problem. The big target has to be those coal powered plants that are currently the backbone of american electricity, and, thus, the backbone of our economy and our way of life.
The technology exists to shut down the last coal fueled powerplant within the next twenty years. We just need to get over our irrational fear of nuclear power plants.
A few posts back, I talked about American's inability to judge relative dangers. Nuclear power is one of the victims of irrational fears. Let me be blunt: Nuclear power isn't safe. People can die working in nuclear power plants. The nearby cities can be endangered by nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants produce dangerous wastes. However: Every one of these statements is equally true for our present coal-based energy generation. Far, far, far more people have died mining coal than have ever died from nuclear power. US department of labor statistics show about 50 people die a year in mining accidents. Many more people die each year from a disease known as "black lung." Burning coal produces polution that some people estimates contributes to 10,000 cancer deaths per year, though I'm skeptical of such a round number. Still, it's inarguable that coal based power plants push a lot of bad things into our atmosphere... and, if you think that carbon dioxide is one of those bad things, then the environmental cost of coal is almost immeasurable compared with the environmental cost of nuclear. Coal also has pollution effects beyond just burning it... mining it currently strips away whole mountains and is a major source of ground water pollution.
The number of deaths attributed to nuclear power plant failures in the US is pretty low. The worst nuclear accident ever in America, Three Mile Island, killed exactly zero people. Yes, there is risk with this. If we converted to a completely nuclear electric economy, and had 1000 nuclear plants online instead of 100, we'd be increasing the risk of eventual catastrophic failure. But, again, you have to weigh this against the known risks and dangers of coal. Currently, if you compare the pollution and risk footprints of the 100 nuclear plants in the US against the pollution and risk footprints of 100 coal plants generating a similar amount of power, I believe you'd find that nuclear is the most responsible choice we can make for the environment.
As for waste, yes, nuclear waste has special challenges. There is a NIMBY response to its disposal. But, if you are a believer in man-made global warming, then you have to be more afraid of coal than nuclear. Nuclear power isn't going to make the oceans rise 30 feet. Carbon... maybe. I doubt it. But everything is a trade off of risks.
By the way, for proponents of wind and solar: Yes. Go for it. If you live in Arizona, solar may well be a better option than nuclear. If you live near an ocean or someplace that generates a lot of wind, put up the windmills. A windmill in my immediate vicinity would be mostly decoration... there's just not that much wind here. Solar panels are fine. We can cover the roofs of our nuclear power plants with them, but the technology isn't there today to have it completely replace coal. Nuclear power is ready. It's been ready for decades. It can save the world from coal, if we just have the good sense to use it.
Environmentalists are frequently called tree-huggers. Count me in the ranks of the atom huggers. I believe in power of the atom, by the atom, for the atom (at least when those atoms are arranged into the shape of me).