Biology in the News Explained

Use recyclable, not just renewable, energy

Biofuels (= ethanol) remain a massive part of our quest for “renewable energy” because subsidizing ethanol benefits agribusiness, despite the fact that it adds to our environmental problems. The latest attempt to raise the maximum percentage of ethanol in gasoline from 10% to 15% shows that we are still letting agribusiness call the engergy-policy shots.

Unfortunately, the main objection to this policy so far seems to be the worry that the new solution will damage engines. Despite the clear evidence for well over a year that ethanol production is implicated in environmental destruction and food shortages, few commentators (here’s one though) even mention that consequence of the potential new policy.

This ethanol diversion helps keep the nation’s “green” energy focus on “renewables” (even though the use of that term for ethanol production is merely political, and not at all accurate), at the expense of wider solutions to our energy problems. The “green” vs. “fossil” arguments are not getting us anywhere; critics of solar and wind power insist that the wattage they can produce is negligible. Many advocates of renewables spend a lot of their own energy calling for higher fuel efficiency in cars. That potentially creates the problem that higher efficiency makes gas cheaper and longer-distance driving more affordable, and would likely exacerbate exurban sprawl that is part of the problem in the first place.

But why is it that vocal proponents of increasing efficiency talk only about cars, when power plants consume at least as much energy (and will consume significantly more if electric cars become common)? The benefit to raising the efficiency of the U.S.’s power plants is thus arguably higher than raising the efficiency of cars, and yet this never seems to be discussed in policy circles.

Thomas Casten and Phillip Schewe, experts in recycled (not renewable) energy, in their article “Getting the Most from Energy” (American Scientist, Jan-Feb 2009, pp. 26-33) discuss how to make use of the enormous amounts of waste heat produced by power plants generating electricity.

The authors point out that current overall energy efficiency in the U.S. is a pitifully low 13 percent. Just imagine where we would be with our energy discussions if we had back a big chunk of the 87 percent of our energy that we simply release into the air and water. Specifically for fossil fuels, power plants may be up to 30% efficient, but when we spend the electricity they produce, we often do it in incredibly wasteful ways; for instance, an incandescent light bulb wastes 95% of the energy it consumes – only 5% of that energy is converted to light.

The obvious thing to do to increase power plant efficiency is to channel the excess heat to homes and businesses. This has been successfully done in a few instances, but one big reason it hasn’t been done more is the centralization of power plants. Heat is lost quickly when transported over long distances, so plants need to be nearer to communities for this to work – and thanks to our NIMBY method of planning and zoning in American communities, this is a lost opportunity for efficiency. But in the few areas where this is has been done, efficiency has been raised from 30% to 90%, an astonishing increase that reduces energy consumption (and along with it our CO2 production) by two-thirds without involving any new technologies.

Of course, decentralization of power plants has other huge benefits – the shorter the distance electricity has to travel, the less is lost in transit, and of course it reduces susceptibility to major blackout events caused by either aging power infrastructure or deliberate sabotage.

And yet many of our laws are in direct opposition to harnessing our wasted energy. Most people now recognize the disaster of the clause in the Clean Air Act that indefinitely grandfathered in old power plants. A new, more expensive up front but more efficient plant cannot compete with old, inefficient, “dirty” plants. (Of course, this problem could be ameliorated by an auction-based carbon cap-and-trade system that continues to by opposed by powerful energy interests.) There is also competition with incentives for developing new green technology. Why aren’t there incentives for simply using the technology we already have to reduce emissions and become more energy-independent? Alas, there appear to be no recycled-energy lobbyists.

Stable energy prices, which could be regulated by the government (but which so far has lacked the political will to do so) could lead to long-term energy contracts which would make upgrading old power plants and building new efficient ones a lot less risky, and thus far more likely to happen.

Casten and Schewe could not be more correct that our attention has focused too much on the process of energy production rather than the result. There is nothing wrong with developing new technology; in fact, its development could be the basis of a new leadership economy for the U.S. The more solutions we have to our energy problems the better, because looking for silver bullets is a waste of time. Diversification is strength. Wind, solar, nuclear, and efficient use of fossil fuels all have a valid place in our society. Let’s stop partisan bickering about it and acknowledge that all of it makes sense.

Here is a link to the site of the organization Recycled Energy Development. Tell your representative today that you want common-sense legislation to support the worthy goal of raising our energy efficiency.


One Response to “Use recyclable, not just renewable, energy”

  1. miggs says:

    Outstanding article. I’m biased, though, because I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, which Tom Casten chairs. But this point really needs to be made much more: energy recycling saves money while slashing greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential is staggering. In fact, federal estimates suggest more energy recycling could cut U.S. global warming pollution by 20%. That’s as much as if we took every passenger vehicle off the road.

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