A Greener State of the Union

By Shawn Dell Joyce

In his State of the Union address, President Obama subtly equated nuclear power and coal with “clean” energy. His main focus was on transitioning to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and geothermal, from our current energy diet of fossil fuels. However, even the insinuation that nuclear is “green” or that coal can ever be “clean” is misleading, and sending a wrong message to policy makers.

Coal can never be clean even with the most sophisticated carbon cleaning equipment. From its extraction to its use, “coal sends more greenhouse gases into the air and more mercury and acid rain onto our earth and produces more lung-searing ozone and particulates than any other industry,” according to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Yet, coal is the meat and potatoes of our nation’s energy diet. More than half of our energy comes from coal, making the coal industry the “number one polluter,” according to Kennedy.

Nuclear power is also quite dirty. According to Michael Mariotte, Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “if the toxic radiation emitted daily from every nuclear reactor and other commercial nuclear facilities were the color and texture of oil, or smelled like natural gas, or came out as black soot, no one would ever again confuse nuclear power with “clean.”

We could repower American by making our buildings more energy efficient, greatly increase renewable energy generation, construct a unified national smart grid, and transition to clean and affordable electric cars. Repowering America would create new industries with high-paying jobs, and lower energy bills. It would also create energy independence with clean domestic sources of energy and less foreign oil. Most importantly, repowering our country would address climate change in a meaningful way, by making a solid impact at the scope that scientists suggest to curb climate change. 

How can this small miracle be accomplished? RepowerAmerica.org suggests:

—–Improve energy efficiency of our buildings: To make the most out of the energy we currently produce, America needs a national efficiency upgrade. Make new buildings more efficient, upgrade old buildings to save energy, and update our appliances and equipment to use less energy and perform the same or more functions than they do now.

—–Generate 100% of US electricity from truly clean carbon-free sources: Renewable energy generation technologies like solar thermal, photovoltaic, wind, geothermal and biomass have been adding clean, reliable power to the grid for more than a decade. This includes solar and geothermal plants in the southwest, biomass in the northeast and southeast, and wind farms through the Midwest corridor. It is now time to dramatically ramp-up the contribution of renewables to the energy mix.

—–Unified National Smart Grid: Modernize transmission infrastructure so that clean electricity generated anywhere in America can power homes and businesses across the nation; Build national electricity ‘interstates’ that move power quickly and cheaply to where it is needed; Establish local smart grids that buy and sell power from households and support clean plug-in cars.

—–Automobiles: Clean plug-in passenger vehicles will reduce dependence on foreign oil, provide transportation for as little as $1 per equivalent gallon, create price certainty with renewable energy sources that are abundant and free, and help solve the climate crisis. A plug-in fleet will also contribute to energy storage on the grid. And the transition will revitalize the American auto industry.

Already there are new ways of harnessing renewable energy being developed every day. A recent project involves laying cylinders on the beds of streams and oceans to harness water flow. Researchers discovered that a flow of three knots can produce 51 watts.  If many cylinders were layered on the sea bed over a 1km by 1.5km area, and the height of an average house, a flow of three knots could generate enough power for around 100,000 homes. Even a small cylinder stack could power an anchored ship or a lighthouse.

Biomass plants that generate energy from bagged household garbage are another potential source for renewable energy that have not been factored into the energy mix yet. Biomass plants like Taylor Biomass in New York, have the potential to turn municipal waste into a source of electricity through a process that produces minimal carbon emissions and other pollutants. Biomass plants can also be set up to produce ethanol to fuel cars.

Let’s explore these new clean and green technologies to replace unsustainable power sources like coal, oil and nuclear.

SHawn Dell Joyce is the director of the Wallkill River School and a nationally-syndicated newspaper columnist.

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