Thursday, April 24, 2008

How I Spent Earth Day 2008

by Tom Bozzo

King Coal

I had the rare experience of riding along one of the marvels of modern railway engineering, the Union Pacific's main line in Nebraska, over which some 400 million tons of coal from the South Powder River Basin in Wyoming (and plenty of other freight) travel over three and four tracks to a power plant near you. Stephen Karlson calls it the "world's finest railroad," not at all unjustifiably considering that these 20,000-gross-ton coal unit trains and dozens more like them every day move at astonishingly low costs per ton-mile. (It doesn't hurt that the coal is, for the most part, rolling gently downhill.)

Seeing all this coal does slap one in the face with the magnitude of any significant transition away from coal-burning for electricity generation. If nothing else, any major reduction in coal shipments to U.S. power plants in the near term would probably just be offset by export volume.

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Yes, there's quite a demand for that fossil carbon. Is carbon capture and storage actually going to work (technically, economically)? Let's hope.

You may have seen the article in Salon by Joseph Romm on "the technology that will save humanity", which he identifies as

"solar thermal electric, which concentrates the sun's rays to heat a fluid that drives an electric generator. It is the best source of clean energy to replace coal and sustain economic development. I bet that it will deliver more power every year this century than coal with carbon capture and storage -- for much less money and with far less environmental damage."

An acronym sometimes used is CSP - "concentrated solar power".

And speaking of acronyms, missus charley, md and I were watching "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader" last night on tv, and I impressed her by being able to unpack "scuba" prior to the fifth grader doing so.
I'm not much of a believer in carbon sequestration at present (other than as a means of kicking stricter regulation of coal-burning a few years down the road), though I could be persuaded that natural gas is more valuable in roles other than electricity generation and so there may be justification for burning coal efficiently and using the electrons wisely in the near term.

I assume that the Sun will be the most cost-effective fusion power source for some time, so that solar and wind plus some sort of storage technology (using excess electricity in sunny/windy periods to pump water into uphill storage, compress gases, charge batteries, maybe even make some H2) ought to do the trick until the space elevator/orbital PV arrays method becomes feasible.
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