OBAMA, THE CHEVY VOLT, AND UNREALISTIC DREAMS
In May Obama told auto workers that there was a Chevy in his future – a Chevy Volt that is. Talking to a group of workers in Detroit, he said, ““Five years from now when I’m not president anymore, I’ll buy one and drive it myself.” Personally, I hope he gets his chance to buy and drive a Volt on January 21st, 2013.
Obama’s wish for a Chevy Volt is as shortsighted as that of a little kid who wants the newest electronic toy, only to realize later that the toy requires batteries – more batteries than his meager allowance can afford.
The irony is that Obama’s plug-in car will require coal produced electricity. After all, this is the same Obama who told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in 2008, touting Cap-and-Trade, “If somebody wants to build a coal plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them….”
If coal isn’t powering his new Volt, where does he think the electricity is coming from? Despite talk about clean, renewable alternatives, coal is still the cheapest, cleanest alternative. Biomass powered generating plants cost 50% more than a coal plant producing the same amount of energy. It also releases more carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate mater. And, since biomass requires cultivating more land, there would be less habitat for wildlife.
Nor is wind a solution. Although it appears to be renewable and pollution free, it has higher “up front” costs than conventional power plants and is subject to the erratic behavior of the wind. Studies by San Diego Gas and Electric showed that wind farms operate at 23% of capacity, while coal plants reach 85%. And, since there are only a few places in the United States with strong, regular winds, we would have to build high power transmission lines that cost up to $1 million a mile and are often opposed by environmentalists because they interfere with nature. And, this doesn’t even address the problem that they can chop up endangered bird species like a Cusinart.
Solar energy has the same problem as wind energy in that few places in the US actually have a reliable number of sunny days to make solar energy stations efficient. That means that a solar economy also requires a high power transmission grid from sunny places like Arizona to the consumer.
Contrary to the promises of environmentalists, solar plants will not have a small footprint when they are constructed. Unlike coal mines, which blend with the local environment, solar plants will strip the land and then cover them with acres of solar panels and reflectors. Solar reflector arrays need to be on flat ground (3% or less of a grade). That means nearly all of the land will have to be scraped; destroying plant life and wildlife habitat. Mines, on the other hand, usually only scrape pit and road areas. Then, after the mine is closed all the land is reclaimed. Solar plants, on the other hand will scar the land for decades.
Solar plants also require a lot of resources, including water. Solar panels and reflectors require water in order to stay clean in a dry, dusty desert environment. And, concentrated solar power reflectors also require water for steam production and cooling towers. In fact, for every megawatt produced, six acre feet of water are required. Unlike mines, which recycle their water, 92% of the solar plant’s water is released into the environment through evaporation, which requires a constant supply for fresh water.That is quite different from the coal mining industry were mines recycle their water. Many mines even pump ground water from the mine and use it to expand local riparian areas, while recharging the water table. Solar plants, however, are major consumers of water and a clear threat to the water table.
Nor are solar cells any better. Solar cells range in efficiency from 6% in inexpensive amorphous silicone based solar cells to over 40% in expensive, high technology cells. The commercial cells range in efficiency from 14% to 19%. This is a slightly lower efficiency than that that of solar reflectors, which means more acres of land will have to destroyed in order to produce the same amount of electricity.
Finally, there is geothermal, which promises much, but has been just a lot of hot air. Contrary to popular opinion, geothermal isn’t inexhaustible. Steam can only be taken out at the same speed that water enters the system. If the water table isn’t recharged, then there is no steam to pull from the ground. Since water tables are falling throughout the US, geothermal energy sources are problematical. And, that doesn’t consider the fact that geothermal steam is very corrosive because of high concentrations of sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfides.
The fact is that coal is still the best high tech source of energy. Not only does it have the ability to power the energy saving Internet, it poses fewer problems than the supposedly “green” alternatives. That’s something Obama better consider before he buys his next car.