If words are to have any meaning at all, then let’s insist that the legislation Congress is considering to establish a national renewable-energy standard for electricity generation apply only, exclusively, to forms of energy that will not be exhausted as long as the laws of physics govern the operation of the universe.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves why we wanted to encourage development and deployment of authentically renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and ocean energy. We wanted to encourage them, first, because they can’t be blocked by a hostile power's politically motivated embargo on production and second, because they don’t emit greenhouse gases or other criteria pollutants subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. “Renewable energy” is energy that is infinitely renewable. Period.
But the forces of greed are massing again in Washington, looking for the best politicians money can buy, who will write into law the narrow view that “renewable energy” is whatever Btu source their patrons have a lot of and want to sell. In Pennsylvania, that already applies to waste coal and coalbed methane. In Nevada, it covers old tires that have decomposed under bombardment by microwaves. And the Nuclear Energy Institute is lobbying for nuclear energy to be considered renewable.
I will start with the easy one. Is nuclear energy clean? Yeah, sort of. It emits no carbon dioxide. But an element in its spent fuel, Neptunium 237, has a half-life of 2 million years. In choosing nuclear energy over fossil fuel, we are trading a global pollutant (CO2) in for a more local pollutant, which may find its way into the water supply, but only long after most of us are dead. We’re bequeathing the hazard to our descendants while enjoying the benefit of the power produced for our video games and dishwashers. More to the point, the fuel, uranium, is not infinitely renewable. It comes from deposits in the earth, like coal and oil. Eventually, it will be exhausted. And while we’re on the subject, most of those mines are not inside the United States. Dependence on nuclear energy is still dependence on the goodwill of other powers and on long, vulnerable supply lines.
And that’s the easy one. Waste coal (culm) and coalbed methane? Burn them and what do you get? CO2. Yes, you can gasify culm and capture the CO2. Then you’re like the dog that chased a car. He didn’t know what to do with it when he caught it. Yes, there’s a lot of culm and CBM. Today. Eventually, they’ll be exhausted.
Tires? If you’ve ever seen a tire dump, you may think it looks infinite, but you know in your heart that it’s not. And what fuel is being burned to generate the microwaves? In Nevada it’s most likely coal.
O.K., I know, what Congress decides ultimately will involve a political calculation that balances one interest against another against another, ad infinitum. Let me propose another approach: Let’s make the decision on the basis of what is best for our environment, not on what is best for this interest group or that one. I don’t belong to your interest group and you don’t belong to mine, but we all belong to the same environment. If we take care of it, it will take care of us. Deciding on this basis may, probably will, inflict some pain on some interest groups and deliver some goodies to others.
But no one will die from our taking care of the environment. I’m not so sure you can say that about doing it the old way.