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Real Science

Energy Update

Michael Rosenthal

(5/2017) Each day brings news about energy as President Trump and his administration modify energy policies that have been in place during the prior eight years under President Obama. In this article I will speak to some of the changes and proposed changes, and I will offer my opinion on them. You may agree or disagree; that is the American Way!

President Trump has taken steps to strengthen the coal industry, but in my opinion, the United States has moved beyond coal use. The largest coal-fired power plant in the eastern United States, the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, is planning to close by 2019. Two coal plants in southern Ohio will shut down in the next year; six other coal plants in the United States have shut down since November, and 40 more coal plants plan to close in the next four years.

It is understandable for President Trump to wish to provide continuing jobs for coal miners, and he has been rolling back regulations easing safeguards against environmental pollution introduced by President Obama. But the largest consumer of coal historically by far, the electric utility industry, has lost interest in using coal, and it is unlikely to reverse its direction. The long-term planning of the utilities industry does not favor the use of coal.

Some of the utilities are developing interest in renewable resources, as we have discussed in earlier articles – especially wind and solar. Though some of this planning is idealistic, much of it is simply financial, as the industry sees a better financial future by abandoning coal.

The utility companies in America see natural gas as a significant fuel of the future. We hear a lot lately about hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, which is a process by which natural gas is recovered from the ground. Fracking has led to a large supply of natural gas, so much that its price has fallen significantly, making it very attractive as a fuel for electric utilities. What is so interesting to me is that though the trends are environmentally so much better than for the use of coal, the driving force for the utilities is largely economic.

Fracking is in itself a controversial subject. Natural gas is much more environmentally friendly than coal, producing less carbon dioxide than coal, but still not as considerate of the environment as solar, wind, or water power. Former Governor O’Malley of Maryland announced on his way out of office that he would allow fracking. Western Maryland is the primary Maryland location where fracking opportunities exist. Governor Hogan was enthusiastic about allowing fracking in western Maryland as he assumed office, but has backed away from its support recently, announcing that he favored a total ban on fracking. The issue seems to be a difference in opinion about whether the environmental risks associated with fracking can be managed. Natural gas is not the ultimate solution to producing inexpensive energy safely, but it is a much, much better source of energy than burning coal or oil.

To continue our discussion of the current state of coal produced energy in America, here is an interesting twist. The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky, is installing solar panels to produce its electricity. Why would they do this? The announcement states that it will save thousands of dollars in energy costs! Benham advertises itself as "The Little Town That International Harvester, Coal Miners, and Their Families Built." In 1923, about one million of America’s 110 million people worked as coal miners. Now there are about 77,000 people employed by the coal industry, less than the number of people employed at Arby’s restaurant chain.

I recently received the energy report with our electric bill. Here in Emmitsburg, 34.26 % of our electricity comes from burning of coal, 34.70 % from nuclear power, 26.34 % from natural gas, and 4.47 % is renewable energy.

Meanwhile in other parts of the world, changes are also occurring. Carbon dioxide emissions were reported to be stable worldwide in 2016, while emissions in China actually fell. Renewable power generation is growing worldwide through switches from coal to natural gas, technology improvements, and increased energy efficiency. China’s emission of carbon dioxide fell 1 % while the economy expanded by 6.7%. China is using less coal and more renewables, nuclear, and natural gas.

In Chile the Atacama Desert has become a center for solar farms. The sun is so intense that virtually nothing grows or lives there. But what a great spot to generate solar energy! The price of solar energy has fallen so low there that other energy sources cannot compete. Chile’s solar production has increased sixfold since 2014, and Chile is only second to China in the world in producing solar energy. The cost of solar panels has dramatically decreased. Two thirds of these panels are manufactured in China. Chile has a goal of producing 60 % clean energy by 2035, and they are moving well toward it.


Here is an update on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. State and local government have reached a legal settlement to replace 18,000 aging lead and galvanized underground water pipes. The funding will come from the state of Michigan, and the project will cost close to $100 million. The Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $100 million grant to the sites as well to fund upgrades to the outdated water system in Flint. More than a dozen state officials have thus far been charged with crimes in connection with the water crisis.

President Trump’s new budget policies have led to a severe drop in the federal government’s support of scientific research. For the first time since World War II, the federal government no longer funds a majority of basic research in the United States. It isn’t just the Trump presidency; the federal share dropped from 70+% in the 1960s and 1970s and was below 50% in 2013. The change comes from two sources: a flattening in federal spending and a rise in corporate funding. The National Science Foundation defines basic research as "activity aimed at acquiring new knowledge or understanding without specific immediate commercial application of use." It defines applied research as being "aimed at solving a specific problem or meeting a specific commercial objective." In my opinion, a balance between basic and applied research is required, so all research isn’t directed at corporate profit, and that a significant amount of research is directed at the common good of the population through the advancement of scientific knowledge. Drug companies have greatly increased their share of research spending, clearly because of the profit incentive. The pharmaceutical and biotech industry spent $102 billion on research and development in 2015. This type of research is not by any means a bad thing, but achieving and maintaining a balance between profit-centered research and research for the common good is important, and government in the past has sought to achieve this balance.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal