In yesterday's post, I tried to make the argument that we need to square the reality of global warming with our response to it. If it is, as I and many others believe, a looming disaster with the potential to radically alter the physical environment (and the countries that sit atop it), we need to respond with the appropriate heroic measures. It means considering things that are uncomfortable for people across the political spectrum. We consume massive energy, and in order to feed this need, we'll have to choose from among a portfolio of options--some of which we won't like.
Let's start with the data, first. Nationally, over two-thirds of our energy production comes from burning fossil fuels. (All statistics from the Energy Information Administration, year ending 2008.) Coal accounts for almost half of our entire energy grid. Natural gas is another fifth. Purely clean energy--hydro and renewables, accounts for just 10% of the total. (Click on the picture at right for a larger view.) Although it has the twin virtues of cost and domestic availability, coal is a very dirty source of energy.
Coal-fired power plants spewing 59% of total U.S. sulfur dioxide pollution and 18% of total nitrogen oxides every year. Coal-fired power plants are also the largest polluter of toxic mercury pollution, largest contributor of hazardous air toxics, and release about 50% of particle pollution. Additionally, power plants release over 40% of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, a prime contributor to global warming.
That it is cheap and available means replacing it won't be easy. Even in the very green Northwest, we still rely heavily on burning fossil fuels. In Oregon, we get 41% of our energy from this type of energy. Hydro-power, which provides a majority, is declining and will continue to do so as a piece of the pie. (Our energy needs are increasing, and water flows--thanks to global warming, are declining.) Wind and solar can provide some benefit in the margins, as can behavior changes. But none of these are going to come close to replacing the big, polluting sources of energy.
So what to do?
The Nuclear Option
Have a look at that first pie chart. See that vibrantly-colored slice? If we didn't have it in our national energy grid, we'd be produing 700 million metric tons more of carbon dioxide every year. Since the use of coal produces more than twice the megawatt hours of nuclear energy, you can do the math on what we're already dumping into the atmosphere. Any serious effort to get us off fossil fuels must take nuclear power into account. The drawbacks to nukes are well, well-known: accidents, weapons, and waste. For decades, these drawbacks were sufficient to shut down any discussion, not to mention nuclear plants like Trojan (a campaign for which I helped gather signatures). But keep in mind that there are no good options for global warming. The patient is dying, and we need a defibrillator, stat. Nukes have problems, but are they anywhere near as bad as dumping trillions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year? Worth considering. (I encourage you to read this engaging and well-researched treatment of nuclear power in Mother Jones.)
Salmon Versus Dams
This is a painful one. Salmon are a part of our heritage and seem somehow embroidered into our very self-image. For Oregonians, a small part of our DNA has gills. Unfortunately, the value of dams in a globally-warmed world can't be underestimated. It is pure and clean, reliable, and can produce 24 hours a day. Unlike other renewables, it doesn't require daylight or weather systems to produce. For grids that rely on stable sources, this is critical. And except for endangering salmon and the psyches of Oregonians, it's a perfect--and substantial--source of energy. We should definitely not be pulling up dams.
If liberals have to concede that nukes and dams may be a part of the future, conservatives are going to have to suck it up on carbon taxes. The mechanism here is less important than the principle--the total cost of burning fossil fuels needs to be reflected in the price of these sources. It's true that coal is cheap to dig up and burn. But Oregonians are quickly learning just how huge the cost for this cheap energy source is: our forests are dying (by beetle, fire, and draught), our fisheries are slowly fading away, and our water is drying up. How many jobs and industries will be lost because of a short-sighted dependence on "cheap" energy? We can affix these costs through cap and trade, carbon taxes, or other mechanisms, but until we abandon this completely bogus idea that the only costs of using fossil fuels are reflected in its production, we will fail to account for how expensive it really is.
Ah, but what about the really big polluters, those shiny, 4,000-pound personal transporters we so love? I'll look into that one tomorrow.