This morning Morning Feature will present part one of a two-part series digging deeper into alternative energy sources and the tradeoffs they present. Today we will look at transitional energy sources, bridge fuels to get us to completely renewable clean energy. Next week we will look at renewable and clean energy sources. (More)

The Tuesday Digging Deeper Morning Feature surveys an ongoing news topic through multiple sources to invite in-depth conversation. Please check back over the coming days for additional comments. This week’s Digging Deeper topic is energy tradeoffs.

Most people are in agreement that we (the global we) need to find alternative sources of energy. Fossil fuels have enormous costs related to extraction and their burning creates deadly gases that lead to global warming. In the long run, well, there is no long run since fossil fuels are not renewable. When they are gone, they are gone.

On Morning Feature in September we discussed that it will be at least 100 years before we will be completely independent of fossil fuels and how we need to get there incrementally via reductions in consumption and moving toward new sustainable sources of energy. There is no magic bullet or Apollo project .

We will discuss four alternative energy sources. This week we will discuss two that I will label transitional, in that we will not use them forever. Next week we’ll discuss two that would be the energy of the future – both sustainable and eco-neutral.

“Clean” Coal

Clean coal technology has as its goal to reduce the environmental impact of coal energy generation:

Clean coal technology is a term used to describe technologies being developed that aim to reduce the environmental impact of coal energy generation. It implies that it is possible to make coal a fuel source that is free of (or very low in) carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutant emissions. Some of the techniques that would be used to accomplish this include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, gasification (see also IGCC), treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide, carbon capture and storage technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and dewatering lower rank coals (brown coals) to improve the calorific value, and thus the efficiency of the conversion into electricity.

Clean coal comes with quotes (“Clean” Coal) because of concerns about how clean it is.

Time to bury the ‘clean coal’ myth:

Who came up with the term “clean coal”? It is the most toxic phrase in the greenwash lexicon. George W Bush, by promising to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the pursuit of advanced “clean” coal technologies, certainly popularised it. But I’d love to know where it came from. Any thoughts out there?

It is, of course, oxymoronic. Coal is about acid rain and peasouper smogs, asthma and mercury contamination, radioactive waste emissions and ripping apart mountains, killing trees, lung cancer and, of course, global warming.

Coal emits more carbon dioxide for every unit of energy generated than any other fuel. Sure you can clean it up a bit – though the toxins you’ve taken out of the ground have to go somewhere. But clean coal? Just say no.

PBS did a show last year that tried to address both sides. The link includes a 26 minute video and the correspondent included discussions with both Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and Jeff Goodell, the author of “Big Coal,” who says that carbon dioxide emissions generated from coal contribute to global warming:

Americans are addicted to coal—it powers half of all our electricity, and is both plentiful and cheap. In fact, some call America the “Saudi Arabia of Coal.” But are we paying too high an environmental price for all this cheap energy?

With carbon emissions caps high on the Obama Administration’s agenda, coal is in the crosshairs of the energy debate. This week, NOW Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa travels to Wyoming to take a hard look at the coal industry there and its case that it can produce “clean coal”—coal that can be burned without releasing carbon into the atmosphere. President Obama has been outspoken in his support for “clean coal” technology, but some say the whole concept is more of a public relations campaign than an energy solution.

From the way-back machine, a 1990 article on Wyoming’s clean coal and mining restoration Wyoming’s Bonanza: Plentiful ‘Clean’ Coal:

Powder River Basin coal contains a maximum of one-half of 1 percent sulfur, compared with the 4 percent or 5 percent found in coal in Ohio, West Virginia and parts of Kentucky. When the cost of removing sulfur from Eastern coal is factored in, the Western coal is competitive.

Federal laws requiring land reclamation. The Thunder Basin unit, for example, takes elaborate steps — spending about $10,000 an acre — to restore its mine site, much of which is within the Federal Thunder Basin National Grasslands.

First, top soil is scooped off and saved. Then the remaining dirt and rocks that lie above the coal seams are used to fill strip-mine sites that dip hundreds of feet into the ground. This process flattens the hilly terrain.

The top soil is returned, and the land is contoured to restore the flow of streams. More than 20 types of native grasses and shrubs are planted to re-create eastern Wyoming’s arid grazing land. Straw is crimped into the newly planted ground to hold in precious moisture while the plants take hold.

Lyle Randen, the mine’s environmental manager, said the company also builds rock piles to provide habitats for small animals, and outcrops for birds.

Clean coal has political friends as well. From President Obama’s announcement in February 2010:

President Obama announced a Presidential Memorandum (linked below) creating an Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage to develop a comprehensive and coordinated federal strategy to speed the development and deployment of clean coal technologies. Our nation’s economy will continue to rely on the availability and affordability of domestic coal for decades to meet its energy needs, and these advances are necessary to reduce pollution in the meantime. The President calls for five to ten commercial demonstration projects to be up and running by 2016.

Bio Fuels (ethanol)

Bio fuels are considered renewable because they can be re-grown. But planting, cultivating and harvesting are not “free.” And biofuels are still burned.

Ethanol fuel is ethanol (ethyl alcohol):

It is most often used as a motor fuel, mainly as a biofuel additive for gasoline. World ethanol production for transport fuel tripled between 2000 and 2007 from 17 billion to more than 52 billion litres. From 2007 to 2008, the share of ethanol in global gasoline type fuel use increased from 3.7% to 5.4%.[1] In 2009 worldwide ethanol fuel production reached 19.5 billion gallons (73.9 billion liters).[2]

Ethanol is widely used in Brazil and in the United States, and together both countries were responsible for 86 percent of the world’s ethanol fuel production in 2009.

Bioethanol, unlike petroleum, is a form of renewable energy that can be produced from agricultural feedstocks. It can be made from very common crops such as sugar cane, potato, manioc and corn.

Biofuel Options

Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are currently produced from the products of conventional food crops such as the starch, sugar and oil feedstocks from crops that include wheat, maize, sugar cane, palm oil and oilseed rape. Any major switch to biofuels from such crops would create a direct competition with their use for food and animal feed, and in some parts of the world we are already seeing the economic consequences of such competition.

Opponents of biofuels are concerned about the food versus fuel controversy:

Food vs. fuel is the dilemma regarding the risk of diverting farmland or crops for biofuels production in detriment of the food supply on a global scale. The “food vs. fuel” or “food or fuel” debate is international in scope, with good and valid arguments on all sides of this issue. There is disagreement about how significant the issue is, what is causing it, and what can or should be done about it.

Second generation biofuels may have less impact on the world’s food sources:

Second generation biofuels are now being produced from a much broader range of feedstocks including the cellulose in dedicated energy crops (perennial grasses such as switchgrass and Miscanthus giganteus), forestry materials, the co-products from food production, and domestic vegetable waste[5]. Advances in the conversion processes will improve the sustainability of biofuels, through better efficiencies and reduced environmental impact of producing biofuels, from both existing food crops and from cellulosic sources.

The use of ethanol fuel is also politically potent. Al Gore regrets ethanol subsidies;

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol,” Gore said at a green energy conference in Athens, Greece, according to Reuters. First generation refers to the most basic, energy-intensive process of converting corn to ethanol for use as a motor vehicle fuel additive.

Former Vice President Al GoreOn reflection, Gore said the energy conversion ratios — how much energy is produced in the process — “are at best very small.” “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee,” he said, “and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”


I encourage you to follow the links and read the articles.

Here are some questions to get us started, not in any order and not intended to be all inclusive:

1. How long is too long for fuels that increase carbon emissions?
2. How long is too long for fuels the employ dangerous extraction techniques?
3. Food versus fuel: real or manufactured controversy?
4. What about the fuel needed to produce the fuel?


Please share your thoughts and additional links in the Comments.


At BPI our Progressive Agenda is:
1. People matter more than profits.
• Corollary: Each person matters … equally.
2. The earth is our home, not our trash can.
3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.