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Guaranteed to Make the Lights Come On
by Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
Mar 02, 2009 | 1429 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
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On a windless night recently I arose before the sun. I flipped on the lights and plugged in my coffee pot, the old fashion kind that actually clears its throat to make a steaming pot of Joe.

While waiting for the coffee to percolate, I may have felt like an old rag and looked worse. But one thing is certain: I didn’t spare a passing thought for the demands I was placing on the electrical grid.

In Detroit they speak of the Big Three automakers. But we have a much more essential Big Three in this country, namely the three sources of electrical power that always work, 24-7, no matter what.

Alternative energy sources have some great applications. But as a nation, we can gain only small amounts of electricity from burning wood chips and other material we can grow. And we can build just a few more hydroelectric dams in the West, because the best sites have already been used.

On the upside, thousands of wind turbines are springing up all around the West and researchers are working hard to improve solar-electric power possibilities.

But even when it’s dark and calm outside – when solar and wind cannot help us – we want lights, coffee and all the equipment in the ER to spring to life at the flick of a switch.

Those “must have” functions are part of what the folks who run the grid call baseload power, the electricity we always need. We need it on standard workdays, on major holidays and on every day in-between.

That brings us to the Big Three, the three viable sources of energy that are large enough to keep the power grid running across the nation no matter the weather. The Big Three are coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

Coal is a favorite of us geologists. The U.S. has a great deal of coal, and we could generate enormous amounts of electricity from it if we choose. We have more coal in the ground, by far, than the Saudis have petroleum remaining under their sands.

But coal is pretty dirty and dangerous stuff. Burning coal creates air pollution bad enough to contribute to the deaths of what the government estimates to be a couple of thousand Americans each year. And some of the pollution created by coal doesn’t go into the air. It is ash that’s left over from burning coal that created the sludge that inundated a Tennessee river earlier this winter.

And, as we all know, underground coalmining accidents grab headlines on occasion when miners are trapped or killed. On top of that, burning coal creates substantial carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

The downsides of coal led us in recent years to build many natural gas power plants. But natural gas is an expensive fuel compared to King Coal. And natural gas, geologist T. Boone Pickens argues, should be saved for transportation, because it’s a clean-burning fluid that can easily power cars and trucks. That’s a good point, and we’ll see if it gets traction in the American mind.

Our third option is nuclear power. Nuclear reactors make one fifth of the electricity we use each day. They’ve been helping to keep the grid up and running since the 1950s.

The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the late 1970s clearly spooked us. The events resulted in no significant release of radiation, and no injuries or deaths, but fear of a catastrophe was intense at the time.

Still, when President Carter walked into the TMI reactor building, Americans realized the situation was under control. And from that day to this one, scores of nuclear reactors have been supporting the grid, everyday and every night, no matter the weather.

We don’t have ideal choices for energy. Our national baseload electrical options come down in practical terms to the Big Three. In the coming months, the new administration and Congress will be shaping our grid’s future by choosing among more coal, natural gas or nuclear power plants.

If you want your voice to be heard, now is the time to speak.

Just remember, some of us desperately need our percolators to fire up – even on calm midwinter nights.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science or energy for future Rock Docs can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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