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Pick Your Power! Choosing Energy for Dallas, Texas

This month’s webcast is about nuclear energy. Since the first nuclear power plant began operating in Obninsk, Russia, in 1954, popular opinion has fluctuated between embracing nuclear energy as the answer to a self-sustaining future and condemning it as irresponsibly dangerous. Some countries have invested heavily in nuclear power (France draws nearly 75% of its energy from it), while others have largely ignored it (coal-rich China produces only 2% of its energy from nuclear power plants). Recent events in Fukushima, Japan, notwithstanding, might we be on the cusp of a nuclear comeback with nuclear energy anointed the new, carbon-free, green option? (For a primer, check out this Distillations podcast from 2011 for a cross section of opinions about nuclear power.) The show aired at 6 p.m. EDT, September 11 and can be watched here.

In the meantime, consider a hypothetical situation. Energy demand in Dallas, Texas, has skyrocketed. The municipal government is overhauling its electricity production and has put you in charge of the energy grid. You must weigh all options and issues and then decide what fuel source Dallas will use. None of your neighbors want to host your power-generating facilities, so any option you choose will end up in your backyard.

A little background: Dallas has a population of more than 1.2 million people, making it the ninth most populous city in the United States. It is situated halfway between the arid desert of the western United States and the lush greenery of the Mississippi valley. Depending on the year, the city could suffer from severe drought or extensive flooding from the nearby Trinity River. You will need a sturdy, reliable power supply to withstand the climate.

Listed below are the energy options you have been given. Choose one source for Dallas to use, and tweet your vote using the #HistChem hashtag. After you’ve made your choice, scroll to the bottom of this page to find out the effects of your decisions. Energy is a serious business, but that weightiness can sometimes lead to a black and white, good versus evil, approach. Our approach is slightly tongue in cheek, and readers might find a little more grey. The votes might be discussed on our next live webcast.

Nuclear: The promise of safe, sustainable power arrived with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Nuclear technology will always be a double-edged sword, but the benefits can’t be ignored. Most modern nuclear reactors use a core of radioactive material (generally uranium) regulated by a moderating material (usually carbon rods) that control the rate of fission. Water absorbs the heat from the nuclear reaction and transfers it to produce steam that turns a turbine, thereby producing electricity.

Texas already has two nuclear power plants. Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant is about 60 miles from Dallas and would provide most of the energy for the city, should you choose this option. However, Comanche Peak would not be able to support the entire city’s energy demands as it currently exists, and more reactor cores will have to be built. Luckily a third and fourth reactor are already in production, but it is likely that even more will be needed.

One major benefit of nuclear is that it produces very little greenhouse-gas emissions. The air and water quality of Dallas would undoubtedly improve and you would gain popularity with anti–global warming activists. On the other hand, significantly more uranium would be required, raising the issues of mine safety and radioactive-waste disposal.

Coal: Coal power plants generate electricity with a steam turbine, just as nuclear plants do. The only difference is the heat source.

Coal accounts for about 41% of the world’s energy production, more than any other type of fuel. The relative cheapness and abundance of coal explains its popularity. Vast deposits exist in many parts of the world, especially in the United States and China. Picking coal as the energy source for Dallas would allow citizens and energy companies to save a lot of money, and you would have no problem getting enough of it to power the entire city.

One problem with burning so much coal is that it contributes to global warming on a large scale (coal is basically fossilized carbon) through all the CO2 produced. (Not to mention potential nasty constituents in coal, such as acid rain–causing sulfur and smog-causing NOx gases.) This option also requires more coal mines, which often have inconvenient mountains and forests that need to be torn out. And you will need a place to dispose of the ash and clinker.

Petroleum: If there’s one thing that Texas has in abundance, it’s oil. Texas produces more barrels of oil than any other U.S. state. Still, demand for petroleum is high enough that America still imports a significant percentage of its oil from other countries to make transportation fuels and to fuel power plants. And global petroleum prices have a nasty habit of bouncing up and down. Choosing oil to provide electricity to Dallas won’t be as cheap as you might think.

The main benefit of petroleum is that supply lines and oil wells are already in place and operating at full capacity, so Dallas would not have to install any new infrastructure (besides building petroleum-fueled power plants). The downsides would include contributions to global warming, high fuel cost, and dependence on a nonrenewable resource.

Natural Gas: One of the biggest new sources of energy in the United States is natural gas. Formed through similar processes as petroleum, it exists in large underground reservoirs and is pulled out of the ground through drilling. The United States has historically had a lot of natural gas, but most of the easily accessible gas has already been extracted. In order to meet Dallas’s growing energy needs, you will need to use hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to get at the difficult-to-access gas. Fracking requires pumping water and chemicals into the ground to create fractures in the shale that allow the gas to escape. Some of the chemical-laced water might end up contaminating local groundwater.

Still, once it has been removed from the ground, natural gas is one of the cleanest-burning fuels and emits less greenhouse gases than coal and oil.

Hydroelectric: Hydroelectric energy is produced by building dams in rivers and allowing gravity to push water through turbines. Because hydroelectric energy does not require burning fuel, it operates with little-to-no carbon dioxide emissions. The Dallas area already has the Trinity River running through it. But dams disrupt rivers and upset aquatic life. Dams also flood large areas behind them, forcing out wildlife and communities.

Wind and Solar: Wind and solar energy are lumped together because neither can completely power Dallas on its own.

Wind turbines transform the wind into electricity for a generator or power station. After being built, they produce virtually no emissions. However, winds are fickle, and wind turbines can only convert a small part of the wind’s energy into electricity.  Dallas would need a huge number of turbines—probably in the thousands—to come close to producing enough electricity. These wind farms would take up large amounts of land and likely displace wildlife and communities.

Solar panels (photovoltaic cells) convert radiation from the sun into electricity. Although they are becoming more efficient, they still only approach 20% efficiency. And though they can be placed on top of buildings, most would end up covering vast expanses of open ground. Still, solar energy is environmentally friendly.

Now that you’ve made your choice (you have, haven’t you?) check below to see the consequences of your choice.

Nuclear: You successfully built new reactors and provided enough energy for the whole city. But you ended up with a lot of radioactive waste. You buried it far away in a huge underground cavern far from any seismic activity. But neighbors found out and began protesting. “Not in my backyard,” they shouted. In solidarity, environmental activists worried about radioactive waste also protested. Your reputation is in tatters, and you are forced to stop shipping waste. Instead, the waste piles up at the nuclear power plants. Locals are not happy.

Coal: A mixed blessing. Air quality remains poor. Environmentalists protest the new coal mines that required mountaintop removal and deforestation, not to mention the tons of CO2 produced. On the bright side, the city legislature is happy; they were able to put the money saved by using coal toward improving the city’s school system.

Petroleum: Choosing oil turned out surprisingly well. You got most of the required petroleum from Texas, saving money on transportation costs. The new power plants are pumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, but none of it is noticeable in the city, so who cares. One problem: experts have estimated that oil reserves will only last 60 more years at current rates of consumption. But that’s not your problem. Kick that can down the road to the next generation.

Natural Gas: At first, everything goes great. The environmentalists are happy with a smaller CO2 footprint, and the city government is happy with the cheap natural gas made possible by fracking. You hear a few complaints about water quality from farmers who live near the drilling sites,  but the city people are happy with their cheap power, and that’s what counts. Then you find that natural-gas supplies will last only another 40 years. Whoops, worse than petroleum, so kick that can harder.

Hydroelectric: Oops, you forgot that Dallas is flat. You need height to make a dam work. You’ve wasted lots of money building a white elephant. You’re hounded out of town.

Wind and Solar: After using eminent domain to claim lots of acres around the city, Dallas builds thousands of wind turbines and solar panels. The city becomes famous for being the first in the world to reach zero emissions from electricity generation. And you even remembered to get lots of batteries to store the electricity for the long, dark nights of winter (or even the short ones of summer). Unfortunately for you, battery technology is not yet good enough to get the city through the night. You still need to buy, at high cost, electricity generated elsewhere. And those people who lost their land want a lot more money in compensation. Taxpayers want your blood!

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