Climate Science

March 4, 2012

Dealing with the rising energy problem

The nighttime satellite photo of North America, centered on the United States, is both beautiful and troubling.

The photo allows one to trace the complete outline of the lower 48 states from light given off by our activities. Boston, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and many other towns and cities clearly stand out.

That is the beautiful part.

The troubling part is the fact that we can see this detail from thousands of miles away in space. All of this light emitted into space serves no earthly purpose. Hence the statement from some energy experts, scientists and planners that we do not have a carbon-dioxide problem so much as an energy problem, namely, wasted energy.

According to Union of Concerned Scientists, only about 35 percent of the energy produced is converted into electricity. The rest is lost to the environment in various ways.

Let's consider for a moment how this light is generated and where it comes from. About half of the energy used to generate electricity in the United States comes from burning coal, with the rest coming from natural gas, oil, nuclear and renewable sources. These percentages are changing a bit today as coal is being recognized as the dirty kid on the block.

Regulations requiring reductions in emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide (the main source of acid rain), nitrogen oxides and soot, the socialized costs of which all Americans are paying for, have begun to make coal a less desirable source of energy to generate electricity. The main combustion product is the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, a major concern to climate scientists.

When we think about the extraction of coal, either from mountain-top removal, open-pit mining or deep mine sources, we have to keep in mind the fact that we must then transport this billion tons a year to the 600 coal burning plants in the United States.

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