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Real Science

Energy production update

Michael Rosenthal

(2/2017) We are constantly searching for ways to provide energy when we need it at lowest prices, with easiest access, and with the least impact on environment. An interesting and potentially useful technique to support this goal is called cryogenic storage. Cryogenic storage stores power provided by renewable energy sources or at off-peak generation by chilling air into liquid form at minus 190 degrees Centigrade, storing it in an insulated tank, and then allowing it to warm up at a later time to expand it and drive a turbine to produce electricity. The pressure of the warming air is great, as it expands to some 700 times the volume of the liquid. Such a plant exists in Manchester, England, and can produce power for to up to 5,000 homes for three hours or so. In England, more dependence is now being made on renewable energy – almost 25% at this time. England is moving away from historically dominant energy sources, especially away from coal.

England is fond of hydropower as well, but like the United States, you can only produce energy from hydropower in certain situations like Niagara Falls. I remember my first visit to Niagara Falls on a family vacation, and the awesome sight of the power of that moving water. I think I was converted to my future respect of hydropower even then!

Lithium batteries can of course be used to store energy, but they have yet to be engineered to be cost-effective to the needs of a town or city. We need long-duration storage that has easy access at the time we need it. This technique may make important contributions of that sort.

Nuclear power is a wonderful source of energy that does not have the climate impact of oil, coal, and gas which enable carbon dioxide release. We’ve written before on nuclear power, and twice I and my family have lived safely not far from nuclear power plants. America has never had a life-threatening nuclear malfunction, such as took place at Chernobyl or Fukishima. There have been some incidents, but they were safely resolved. One nuclear facility that has generated much discussion is the Indian Point Energy Center, some 30 miles from Manhattan in New York City, in Buchanan, NY. The New York Times recently reported that the operators of Indian Point, Entergy, based in New Orleans, have come to an agreement with New York state officials regarding the shutdown of the aging facility. Under the agreement, it reports, one of the reactors will shut down by April 2020 and the second one by April 2021. The impetus for this shutdown has been led by Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, who worries about the facility’s proximity to New York City. It is fair to mention that there has never been a situation at this facility that posed danger to New York, such as the scare due to partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island on the Delaware River in 1979. The Three Mile Island incident ended without anyone being hurt or the environment being seriously damaged; though the clean-up took many years and the financial cost was a billion dollars.

The solution of one issue, however, provokes another. How does one replace the 2,000 megawatts of inexpensive power that Indian Point provides to New York City and Westchester County, some 25% of their electric power consumption? Governor Cuomo says the State will invest in wind farms and other renewable energy sources, and that they would add transmission lines to carry hydropower from Quebec. And there are other impact issues. The Indian Point plant provides some $4 million annually to the county’s tax base. The taxes from the plant provide close to one-third of the school system’s operating budget, keeping other taxes for residents down significantly. State officials, however, say the impact on ratepayers will be negligible, and estimate that no more than $3 per month would be added to local electric bills. In the United States, only Hawaii pays higher rates for their energy than New York City. Some 1,000 people are employed at the plant; the company has expressed willingness to offer the opportunity to relocate them to one of Entergy’s other facilities.

When the plant closes, one will have to dismantle the reactors, removing and safely disposing of its spent fuel rods, which normally are stored in flasks. This opens the issue of nuclear waste disposal, which we will address at another time. There was a third reactor at Indian Point, which shut down in the mid-1970s. The fuel rods from that reactor are stored on the Indian Point site.

Modern nuclear plants have improved designs over older ones, making them much safer, and we do not have to worry about major earthquakes (such as occurred in Fukishima, Japan). Newer nuclear plants are built differently than old ones, with much more safety, and Entergy had promised to make repairs and introduce modern upgraded safety devices if they could remain operational, also agreeing to safety inspections as demanded by Governor Cuomo and other government and environmental groups. Entergy had been seeking a twenty-year license renewal since 2007, but New York State, and most importantly Governor Cuomo, did not agree.

Nuclear power is a topic that strongly polarizes opinion. On the one hand, it produces lower cost energy without any adverse environmental effects such as the burning of coal or oil. On the other hand, there is the possibility of accident and the problem of nuclear waste disposal. I will keep alert to the ongoing development of this issue and report it here.

In a related story, the first large-scale clean coal facility was opened this month near Houston, TX. What makes it "clean" is that carbon dioxide from the coal combustion is captured and utilized to force oil from the ground. In the initial act, some 100,000 tons of CO2 was captured and piped to an oil field 80 miles away. This rate translates to 1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. This technique, if applied to other existing coal burning facilities, can help justify the continuing use of coal. It also can help keep the coal industry alive and save the jobs of coal miners. There are currently 21 carbon dioxide capture projects worldwide, but only a few are in the power generating sector. This project, which cost $1 billion to initiate, is called Petra Nova, and it has worked with $190 million of Department of Energy grants. The International Energy Agency and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are strong proponents of carbon capture and storage to curb the effects on climate.

And finally, a quick update on plastics. The State of Michigan has banned any laws that restrict, ban, or impose fees on the use of plastic bags in its municipalities. Idaho, Arizona, and Missouri have similar laws.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal