Making the Hard Choices for Energy

Mar 19th, 2009 | By | Category: Environmental, Nukes


A landmark Energy Department project to bury carbon dioxide produced by humans has begun as workers sunk a huge drill bit into Illinois ground this week, signaling continued support for a climate change mitigation strategy that has fallen out of favor in many circles.

The start of drilling marks the launch a geological sequestration project that will deposit a million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the ground by 2012.

While that’s nothing compared to the several billion tons of CO2 that humans emit yearly, it’s the geology of the site that makes the development exciting. The CO2 will be piped into a geological formation that underlies parts of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky that could eventually hold more than 100 billion tons of CO2.

While I find the term ‘clean coal‘ to be absurd, I still think this sort of technical investment is critical for the future health of the climate. Thanks to years of foot-dragging on alternatives, the entire world has gone on a fossil-fueled power plant building spree. Carbon sequestration may never pan out. It’s, sadly, one of our few remaining shots at averting environmental catastrophe.

Take Shell’s move today, as a portent:

Shell will no longer invest in renewable technologies such as wind, solar and hydro power because they are not economic, the Anglo-Dutch oil company said today. It plans to invest more in biofuels which environmental groups blame for driving up food prices and deforestation.
The company said it would concentrate on developing other cleaner ways of using fossil fuels, such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. It hoped to use CCS to reduce emissions from Shell’s controversial and energy-intensive oil sands projects in northern Canada.

Well, what of the alternatives? Wind is going to be a challenge, particularly in the context of climate change. Biofuels–at least fuels from bioengineered organisms–are intriguing, but we’ll have to get around our discomfort of genetic modification of organisms.

And then, there is nuclear power. (For a primer, I suggest my series on nuclear power, written a bit ago.) The Obama administration paused work on the Yucca mountain waste repository, exacerbating the waste problem (perhaps in a good way, for the long term.)

A growing consensus of scientists, however, are recognizing nuclear power as one of our better shots out of this mess:

Nuclear power is safe, affordable, and the waste problems are much more manageable than the public realizes. That was the take-home message from this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago, where a group of experts from the US and EU participated in a session called “Keeping the Lights On: The Revival of Nuclear Energy for Our Future.”

My personal impression is slightly less rosy–with a deeper concern about waste management–but I still believe we should be investing massively in nuclear technologies.

We’re well past the point of being able to consider only the most pleasant energy sources. Looking at the number of people on the planet, and the increasingly dire reports of damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels, we need to be realistic. These steps, by the scientific community and the Obama administration, are heartening steps in what seems the right direction.