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Real Science

Where our energy originates

Michael Rosenthal

(10/2016) Enclosed with my recent Potomac Edison electric bill was the periodic report on where the energy comes from and the nature of the resulting air emissions. The largest two sources of energy powering my computer as I write this column are coal at 36.58 % and nuclear at 35.77 %. It is good to see that nuclear energy, which has essentially no air emissions, is balancing coal, which has environmentally damaging air emissions. Gas produces 22.98% and oil produces 0.28%, neither of which is good for the environment. Renewable energy, consisting of captured methane gas, hydroelectric, solid waste, wind, and or other biomass, together add up to 4.36%. So while some progress is being made in using more environmentally friendly energy sources, there is still a long way to go.

Accompanying this information is the nature of the air emissions associated with the generation of this electricity. There is 1.61 pounds per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated for sulfur dioxide and 0.78 pounds per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated for nitrogen oxides. These gases contribute to acid rain. Then there is a whopping 1,014.29 pounds per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that has the potential to contribute to global climate change.

We must continue to develop safe and environmentally less damaging sources of energy, but we have limitations. We canít depend on wind power when it is not a windy area or on solar power where it is too cloudy. Hydroelectric power is good near Niagara Falls, but one must have a source of water power nearby to utilize it.

Solar power has much potential. We are constantly now receiving solicitations from solar companies to install solar panels on our roofs, and some of my neighbors have done so. I have hesitated because of the uncertainty of effectiveness and of cost. There needs to be a more objective pathway to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of going solar to help people make good decisions.

In a shopping mall the other day I picked up a brochure entitled, "go solar and become a power house," since no one was tending the desk, and I would thus not have to submit to a sales talk. The brochure promised that you could get installation for $0 down, it "guaranteed performance" and offered a warranty. The fine print told the story. "savings on your utility costs is not guaranteed." "Financing terms vary by location and are not available in all areas." "$0 due upon contract signing. No security deposit required." "A 3 KW system starts at $25-$100 per month with an annual increase of 0-2.9% each year for 20-30 years."

I would like to see government sponsorship of solar programs that would make it clear that it was a good idea for the particular location and that made the financial commitment clear.

Another topic of importance in connecting the world of science to the practical world involves the use of helium gas. You may recall seeing tanks of helium made available in shopping areas or at fairs for children to inhale for fun, making their voices high-pitched or observed its use in balloons that take off into the air.

Helium is element number 2 in the Periodic Table of the Elements, discovered in 1895. It is an inert gas, consisting of two protons and two electrons. It is colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, chemically unreactive, and has the lowest boiling point of all the elements. Liquid helium is used extensively in cooling, because of its low boiling point, and has been used historically as a lifting gas in balloons and airships. It has important usages now as a cooling agent in use of scientific instruments and medical imaging equipment. It is relatively rare on Earth, most of it formed from the radioactive decay of thorium and uranium; it cannot be synthesized. It can be dangerous as an asphyxiant, displacing oxygen, and occasional deaths from helium asphyxiation have been recorded. Since it cannot be synthesized and because of its important industrial applications, one has to have concerns about our potentially running out of helium. The good news here is that using a new technique, scientists have discovered reserves of helium in Tanzania said to be equivalent to seven times the amount of helium consumed yearly. It is theorized that intense heat from volcanic activity releases helium into ancient crustal rock, and it then accumulates in underground reservoirs. Today helium is recovered as a by-product of natural gas extraction, but a finite supply has led to prices being some 4 times as high as ten years ago. One very interesting possible use of helium is to cool superconducting magnets in the production of energy through fusion (such as in the hydrogen bomb!) as opposed to fission (as in the atomic bomb). Fusion has the potential to be the futureís great supply of energy to our planet, but in that case, huge quantities of helium would be necessary.

Finally, letís get back to the great PCB issue in the Hudson River, which we have discussed in previous articles. This is the environmental issue that dominated my early years as a chemistry professor at Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York in the 1970s. The fact that this issue is still ongoing indicates the severe impact that an environmental pollution issue may have. The General Electric factories that produced the PCBs for industrial use have long since closed, and the huge state and federally mandated effort to remove them from the Hudson River has been formally completed. But should it be designated as completed? The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is pushing the federal government to consider whether General Electricís cleanup effort has been enough. Some three million cubic yards of contaminated sediment were removed by GE in the federally mandated cleanup, but the DEC has written the EPA that "unacceptably high level of PCB-contaminated sediment remains in large portions of the Upper Hudson". The area of concern is 136 or more acres of the Upper Hudson River, north of Albany. The state believes that the federal EPA allowed General Electric to declare mission accomplished too soon, and wants them to do more. Many environmentalists agree (including groups in which I was active in my days as an environmental scientist and activist in New York). In January, General Electric abandoned New York, moving their headquarters to Boston and demolishing its Eisenhower-era relic of a plant that produced the PCBs in Hudson Falls, NY. EPA is reviewing the situation.

The important point to be made here is that environmental impacts are often not easily repaired, even when the parties are willing. In this case PCBs were very chemically inert, and not thought to be environmentally damaging. But they are not biodegradable and thus last for thousands of years, destroying the food chain in the river by bioaccumulation, and thus making consumption of fish and other seafood dangerous. Donít eat any fish from the Hudson River! It also now appears that the PCBs have entered the soil through flooding, making crop cultivation in the area dangerous. Then there is the question of how much PCB migrated south along the Hudson River, and still may be doing so. General Electric did a terrible thing to the Hudson River watershed. They did it with permits, not knowing the damage they were causing at the time, some 40 plus years ago.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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