Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The great state with an even greater energy crisis:

To make his breakfast, Ed Begley Jr. pedals for 10 minutes on a stationary bike hooked up to the batteries that run his house. In the time it takes many Americans to sleep between snooze button cycles, he generates enough energy to make two pieces of toast.

On the amusing HGTV series Living with Ed, a recent TV show following environmentalist actor Begley’s life with his wife Rachelle, viewers get insight into the life of an energy conservationist. Through his many energy efficient schemes, Begley is constantly bugging his spouse with his solar oven, environmentally safe cleaning products and calculations of how much water she wastes in a long shower.Though the show is an apt caricature of the clash between the energy conscious and wattage wasters, the demand for power is on the rise, as is the price.

Electric rates tied to natural gas, weather

In Texas’ deregulated energy market, TXU Corp. and other companies have struggled to keep up with the costs of powering such a large state. During the summer, especially, electricity bills go through the roof due to the necessity of air conditioning.

Another rate raiser is the market’s over-dependence on natural gas. Texas generation plants are 47 percent gas-powered, and the rest are primarily coal. When the gas storage is low, the electric prices go up. Also, if the weather is colder or warmer than expected, rates rise again.

It stands to reason that a state so plagued by capricious weather would not seek to tie its electricity rates to the rise and fall of temperature. Just as one day may be freezing and the next day in the 90s, so one month’s bill could be low with the next skyrocketing.

The other stable source of power currently in Texas is that from the coal industry. Recently, TXU attempted to build 11 new coal plants referred to as the “ring of fire” by protesters. The plans fell through, and the company cut back to a trifecta of plants, which salved those opposed to TXU’s proposition. However, the move did not solve any long-term environmental issues with new coal factories.

Along with the new plants, and the other 17 currently operating sites in Texas, will come tons of toxic combustion waste and carbon dioxide. The American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people die prematurely each year from power-plant pollution, and Al Gore swears it creates the controversial global warming phenomenon—which was once again supported by the snow two weeks ago in central Texas. It sure is getting warmer here.

Although the coal industry produces cheaper kilowatts, the dangers outweigh the benefits. So where’s a Texan to turn? Oil prices have been steadily rising, as seen at the pump; natural gas is still an unstable market, despite new bills to search for it in the Gulf, and coal is just plain dirty. Dare I say, “Nuclear?”

More nuclear plants planned for 2015
That’s the direction TXU is headed. The company plans to build up to three new nuclear plants by 2015. The chairman and CEO, C. John Wilder, commented in a press release, “Nuclear generation offers the potential to deliver our customers lower, stable prices and continue to reduce Texas’ over-reliance on natural gas.”

But what about risk? Everyone’s mind flashes to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the world’s worst nuclear power accident.

It occurred when a flawed Soviet reactor design met with mistakes by plant operators. According to the Chernobyl Fact File report published by NucNet in 2006, the result was two explosions, 31 deaths of plant workers, the possibility of 4,000 premature deaths due to radiation exposure and a black cloud over the nuclear energy industry. So far, out of those 4,000, only 50 have died prematurely, according to a mid-2005 study.

Along with the death toll was the high risk of contracting thyroid cancer, but among the 4,000 cases connected with Chernobyl, there has been a 99 percent success rate of survival with treatment. It was a horrible disaster—a view of nuclear power at its worst. But the reason for the explosions was a faulty design. On the positive side, engineers have created a much safer form of nuclear power that is now being used all over the world, including Texas.

Compared to the almost 50 deaths each year in direct connection to the coal industry—remember the Sago Mine disaster in January 2006—the Chernobyl statistics are relatively small, though it will take a major marketing campaign to get the general public to see that. There is also the concern of nuclear waste which has to be stored until the level of radioactivity is reduced to a safe level. The storage time can last for 50 years in the case of low-level waste.

Renewable energy still untapped
Other viable options for reduction of electricity costs come in the form of nature’s renewable wind, solar and water or hydro power. Texas has an abundance of all these resources, especially its summer sun.
With innovations in solar panels, some that even look like roof shingles, the same sun that causes the high temperatures Texas is famous for could power the air conditioners to keep us cool. As a state, we are not yet harnessing these renewable and free resources enough to make a large difference in our electricity bills, but the time to start is now.

According to a recent survey by the World Coal Institute, the main sources for global energy are the non-renewable fossil fuels: oil, 34.3 percent; coal, 25.1 percent and gas, 20.9 percent. The other 19.7 percent is made up of nuclear, hydro, geothermal, solar and wind power.

The current trend has served well for years when the U.S. had control over more oil than it does now. We burned through resources like there was no tomorrow. But tomorrow is here, and it is time to reevaluate the system before we’re all stuck on stationary bikes trying to make toast.

No comments: