Keeping an Open Mind About Oregon's Energy Revolution
I am confident that technological advances will continue to make vast improvements in all energy technologies, provided we maintain an open mind.
There is growing national support for clean and renewable energy solutions as a way to reduce carbon emissions. Many states, including Oregon, continue to adapt aggressive decarbonization goals, with timelines bolstered by tax incentives and mandates. Proposed regulations in Oregon would set declining and enforceable limits intended to achieve an 80 percent reduction in emissions from fossil fuels by the year 2050.
A proposal in the last Oregon legislative session set a staggered timeline for phasing out the sale of petroleum diesel fuel completely, and replace it with renewable biodiesel by the year 2028. Although this proposal didn’t become law, it is likely that the Legislature will continue pushing this concept forward in the future.
The terms clean energy and renewable energy are often used interchangeably. However, there are significant differences between the two and it is crucial for our elected leaders to understand these differences while drafting energy policy and setting carbon reduction goals.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people used renewable energy as their primary source for generating heat and power. Wood burning stoves and fireplaces were used for cooking and heating the home. Wind mills and water mills were used for grinding grain. Human labor and animal power were employed for agriculture.
By the mid 1970’s, America’s thirst for petroleum grew beyond our ability to produce it domestically, leading to a geopolitical crisis and energy shortages. Renewables gained a foothold in our energy portfolio. Domestically, a few such renewables gained hold: ethanol is derived from corn, and biomass can be sourced locally and used as fuel; solar panels and wind turbines can be manufactured domestically as well. Although the energy produced by fossil fuels was significantly greater than all of the available renewable energy sources, the latter helped take the demand and cost pressure off the fossil fuel industry.
The goal of these programs is to reduce our carbon emissions by reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. Despite claims to the contrary, many of these programs are expensive and disproportionately impact our most economically depressed communities, with no measurable impact on the overall carbon footprint.
The first two decades of the 21st century saw significant technological leaps in the extraction and refinement of fossil fuels, leading to an energy independence. Concerns over increased CO2 in the atmosphere amplified the calls for renewable energy. However, we need to examine whether renewable energy is actually clean energy.
Here is a useful checklist for determining whether an energy source is clean.
Does the extraction process of the energy source harm the environment?
Does the manufacturing process of the energy source harm the environment?
Does operating the energy source harm the environment?
Does the decommissioning of the energy source harm the environment?
Considering the currently available energy sources, there is no such thing as truly clean energy, only less dirty energy.
Fossil fuels are the most widely used of all energy sources and generate the majority of the world’s manmade CO2 emissions.
Burning biomass generates CO2 emissions and can be devastating to trees and wildlife. Many acres of prime forestland in the southeastern U.S. have been clear-cut to make wood pellets for use in biomass energy plants in Europe and Japan.
The majority of solar panels are manufactured in China, using large amounts of energy derived from coal-fired power plants. Large-scale manufacturing of solar panels generates large amounts of toxic waste. It is unclear whether solar panels over their lifetime can even offset the carbon generated during their manufacturing. Energy output is inconsistent.
Ethanol production uses agricultural land and water resources to grow corn. Ethanol generates CO2 emissions when it is used for energy.
Hydroelectric dams do not release CO2 emissions, but are disruptive to species living in and around the rivers on which they are located.
Deployment of large-scale wind turbine projects require many acres of land. Energy output is inconsistent. Studies have shown that bird collisions with wind turbines are no greater than bird collisions with power lines or cell phone towers.
Nuclear power has no CO2 emissions, and is a consistent and reliable source of power. Safety and radioactive waste containment are the primary concerns.
Are fossil fuels capable of being turned into “clean energy”? To a degree, the answer is “Yes.” One example is a recently developed methane pyrolysis technology, which enables the removal of the carbon atom from a methane (natural gas) molecule prior to oxidation (burning). The emissions from this reaction would be solid carbon, thermal energy, and water vapor.
Nuria Sánchez-Bastardo et al. in their research paper describe this technology:
Unlike other technologies that use fossil resources, such as coal gasification or steam methane reforming, the greatest benefit of methane pyrolysis is the production of CO2-free hydrogen. Solid carbon is the only by-product resulting from the thermal decomposition of methane, so neither a CO2 separation step nor its subsequent storage is needed.
This is one of many exciting new innovations on the horizon. I am confident that technological advances will continue to make vast improvements in all energy technologies, provided we maintain an open mind. Technological innovation and free market forces are already playing a role in reducing carbon emissions. Our public utility companies responsible for production and distribution of electric power are rapidly deploying new technology to help lower emissions, but have yet to identify scalable solutions to energy storage challenges while meeting the growing demand for cleaner energy.
It is clear that we must go beyond the popular narratives surrounding renewable energy and empower our own critical thinking skills in developing better and more practical solutions for our world’s future energy needs. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Sir Winston Churchill: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
Jessica Gomez is the Founder/CEO of Rogue Valley Microdevices and serves on the OIT Board of Trustees, Oregon Healthcare & Oregon Business Development committees. She is a candidate for governor.