December 2008 News

01 Dec

On November 18 the News Sentinel reported about the end of a promising development here in the Knoxville area: Sunlight Direct. A few years ago we had Duncan Earl, the leading developer of this promising novelty as a speaker. He explained how sunlight would be piped into buildings via optical fibers. It sounded like a real futuristic thing. Imagine a chandelier hanging in the hall of a museum or other major public building sparkling with a thousand little lights all powered by a sunlight collector on the roof. Of course, as with all these unreliable resources like sunlight, wind and water, one has to have a backup (usually coal) but over the long run the use of these resources can take a big bite out of the now commonly used, but problematic base resources, like coal and nuclear. The idea didn’t fly. The company plans to use elements of its Sunlight Direct process for solar power generation that promises more immediate returns, found some California investors and is about to leave town.

This gets us back to coal of which there is plenty around here in the Cumberlands. Bull Run, just one single plant of many hundreds around the country,

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burns coal by the train loads daily. Think what it takes to load just one of these hundred-car trains, hundreds of them each day. Now that there are no more railroad tracks running up

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the valleys, hundreds of truck loads as big as railroad cars have to be delivered to the coal loading facilities. On a recent trip to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, I went through passable parts of the Nolichucky River gorge. In the 19th century a railroad line was built through the gorge between Erwin, TN and Spruce Pine, NC, to ship first mica, then feldspar, and then quartz from the Spruce Pine mines to factories in Tennessee. Now coal goes the other way from the Cumberlands to North Carolina. Every day ten coal trains rumble through the gorge and through Spruce Pine, then climb up the Blue Ridge via Altapass and descent down the escarpment into the Piedmont. The empty trains return that same way, which makes for a busy schedule on this line. To provide the coal for just one such coal line almost defies imagination. It requires mountain top removal on a large scale. Also huge augering machines are in use that drill hollows into the coal seams. They hollow out the mountains in a way that is less destructive to the landscape, but the process is probably more labor intensive, more expensive, more dangerous and less productive and also less profitable.

Mountain top mining is what timber logging was hundred years ago. It will stop only when nothing is left standing. For one or a few relatively thin coal seams many meters of mountain top above them must often be removed, and usually there is a strong rock bench capping the coal seems that has to be dynamited away. One asks oneself how can this be economical? And even more so, how can this be

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permitted? Well, evidently it is both. The spoil is unceremoniously shoved off the nearby cliff. That mining method is a real break-through by the amount of coal at a relatively low cost it produces . The coal is cheap enough to be sold worldwide.

But this does not mean that strange things happen only here. In Germany, for example, a coalition of politicians have decided some years ago to terminate all nuclear energy production, and this date is now approaching. Some of the plants have already been shut down and await dismantling, others are about to follow. Nuclear energy is presently providing about 20 percent of the energy consumed there. All the while new nuclear plants are going up around Germany, even Sweden is reconsidering the nuclear option. Guess where the replacement energy for the Germans is expected to come from: aside from some solar and wind, of all places, from a Russian gas pipe line with Putin at the spigot. It is a sort of energy drip that will keep the Germans kicking. But even more replacement energy is to come from lignite of which Germany has as much as the U.S. has coal, at least relatively speaking. These lignite pits, some of them 150 m deep, which is about five Sunspheres stacked on top of each other, are like modern-day Molochs that eat their way across the land and devour all that is on it, farms, fields, forests, villages, towns, just name it, and they also create havoc with the groundwater in the area. The consolation is that they will ultimately become beautiful recreational lakes.

Similarly, once the Cumberlands are flattened, cities, shopping centers, golf courses, and airports will spring up on the glens. People can move from the shady, debris-filled hollows to the plateau in the sun. Perhaps one should not see the future too bleakly.

We must come to grips with the fact that there is no energy source that does not cause problems of some kind, and act accordingly. First, we have to recognize, that energy is not ‘abundant,’as the energy gurus claimed for many years, that it has to be used sparingly; and, as long as there is no breakthrough imminent, our energy foot print should be as small as possible. Second, we have to rank our energy sources by the seriousness and the permanence of their impacts. Then we pick those that minimize these impacts and invent impact reduction processes for those that need to be used despite their known negative impacts. For coal and nuclear, our most basic energy sources, we already know that they are in the high impact category. Therefore, we have to concentrate on finding solutions and pay for them instead of transferring a part of the energy cost to future generations and continue consuming beyond our means, as has been consistently done until now.

Today we pay billions of dollars for environmental wrongs that were committed forty and more years ago instead of being able to put this money into research and development. TVA now installs desulfurization equipment

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at Bull Run that should have been put there in the 1960s. Now billions of dollars must be spent in retrofitting plants while money is tight or unavailable for building new, more efficient, and cleaner energy sources.

More truthful total cost accounting may show that making Knoxville a solar city now is a step in the right direction. But instead, a promising solar venture is about to be lured away to greener pastures in sunny California for lack of investors to keep it here. WOW.

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