Transition fuels: using what to go where?

For the past 8 months I’ve been working on the question: “How Green Is Your Gas?” This is the title I settled on for my thesis, not really because it’s good, but because I called it that once and it stuck.

The gas I’m referring to is natural gas, particularly that which comes from fracking, and the green I’m referring to is in the environmental sense. Sorry, it’s not about the rancidness of your bottom gas.

Essentially, one of the prominent arguments in favour of natural gas as an energy source is that it is a “transition fuel”. Renewable energy sources are not ready yet to handle our current level of consumption, because they are not widely enough dispersed, not efficient enough, and can be intermittent. But fossil fuels release a lot of greenhouse gases. So, we need a low-carbon fuel to wean us off fossil fuels and work our way towards renewables.

Natural gas extraction in BC (my photo).
Natural gas extraction in BC (my photo).

Natural gas is of course still a fossil fuel, but upon burning it releases approximately half the carbon dioxide of coal. Which sounds great, which is why it’s lauded by politicians wherever large deposits are uncovered (such as here in British Columbia). But there are lots of other factors to consider – for example local health and environmental impacts, leaks of methane, venting of greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere, construction, extraction, processing and transportation emissions, etc…

I could go into more detail, but well, that would be writing my thesis again, and frankly I’m trying to find someone to publish it and pay me for the privilege. But anyway, the point as far as this post goes is natural gas is not particularly green at all, and really doesn’t deserve the “transition fuel” label.

After months of research and reporting on natural gas, my conclusion leaves me with one more huge question: If natural gas isn’t a viable transition fuel, what is?

The only thing I’ve been able to think of is nuclear. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, nuclear is undeniably better than any fossil fuel. My gut feeling about nuclear is that I am relatively unconcerned about huge disasters, since they are very low probability (although admittedly high impact), and many disasters could have been prevented.

As I was pondering all this, a piece of research came out that suggests that nuclear power has saved millions of lives. It computes that if coal had replaced the nuclear power used between 1971-2009, 1.8 million more people would be dead from pollution-related disease. The estimation is fairly simplistic at this point, and I’m sure it will be contested, but it at least provides an interesting thought experiment.

Nuclear power: nobody’s favourite clean energy?
Credit: Lennart Tange via Flickr

Interestingly, considering one of the authors is the esteemed climate scientist James Hansen, the estimate of deaths does not include those possibly caused by climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from coal. In one sense, this makes the study more robust, since it only works with deaths more concretely linked to coal or nuclear pollution. However, as some critics have raised, James Hansen is not an energy or health expert: he is a climate expert, which makes his position as an author somewhat odd.

Perhaps, he wanted to be a part of the study to help publicise the implications, especially since Hansen announced this week he was leaving his position at NASA to pursue advocacy full-time. But, as Keith Kloor at Discover notes, it didn’t really get a lot of mainstream press coverage. At all. The problem seems to be that nuclear is still incredibly unpopular. Fukushima certainly didn’t help, but nuclear has had a bad rap for decades now.

And more than that: its bad rap crosses traditional political and social divides. Many green enthusiasts hate it, even when it’s the only viable transition fuel. People from all walks of life are afraid of it.

But, I have not researched nuclear even a fraction as well as natural gas. I know nuclear waste is an issue. But I also have a built-in bias: my Dad has been engineering at the edges of the nuclear industry all his working life. It’s one area I would like to research very thoroughly one day. Just, er, not after immediately after finishing my thesis.

Natural gas is problematic. Nuclear is problematic. Even many renewables are problematic: for example the heavy reliance of solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries on rare earth elements, the mining and production of which will need to dramatically increase to keep up with demand.

In the face of this, Ozzie Zehner, author of the book Green Illusions (which I am yet to read) argues that “We don’t have an energy crisis. We have a consumption crisis.”


One thought on “Transition fuels: using what to go where?

  1. I have to agree, nuclear is the only real solution to our energy needs. Renewables are little more than a pipe dream and would have got nowhere without vast amounts of funding incentives being applied. But as you rightly point out the public is afraid of nuclear and rightly so after years of propaganda over the supposed results of a nuclear conflict. Ironically nuclear weapons leave a much ‘cleaner’ radiation footprint than a reactor meltdown such as occured at Long Island, Chernobyl and the unfortunate incident at Fukashima, note that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only populated areas actually subjected to nuclear weapons deployment, are now thriving, fully functioning, modern cities. The reasons behind the unfortunate reactor accidents stems from the design of the old reactors that were specifically intended to produce weapons grade plutonium with electrical energy as a mere bi-product. Thus they were not built with the long term or indeed safety in mind and it has to be said that Thorium reactors would be a better bet in all respects… if only we had put our collective efforts into that line of research instead of building bombs, but we didn’t and so we have had accidents (although both Long Island and Chernobyl could have been avoided) and a lot more contaminated waste to deal with with the oft’ quoted statement that “the UK’s nuclear waste would fill Wembly Stadium” which sounds like a hell of a lot but compared to the waste produced by the coal burning power stations over the same time period it is miniscule, it just needs looking after.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s