Part 3 – World and Crackled with Fire
The HorseWoman of Energy encompasses the processes that we use to get our electricity, namely the mining of coal and nuclear reactions, which combined encompass the majority of our electrical energy needs. Our country gets roughly 50% of its electricity from coal plants and about 20% from nuclear power plants. The remaining 30% is a combination of wind, solar, hydro-electric, geo-thermal, and energy oddities such as garbage burning and bird dung processing (Don’t ask.). Electricity is our societies’ lifeblood. You’re using electricity right now to read this article, but have you ever questioned where that electricity comes from or why your electric bill keeps going up?
Coal. Around the world coal mining is still going strong. In fact, The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration projects U.S. coal consumption to climb from 1.1 billion short tons in 2004 to 1.9 billion short tons in 2030. Plus, there’s estimated to be enough to last 240 years at current usage levels, vs. the oil reserves which are estimated to last only another 41 years. China is the only country that mines more and uses more coal then the United States. This HorseWoman of Energy took 3,770 Chinese and 33 U.S. coal workers lives in 2007 alone. Coal mining continues to be the deadliest occupation in China.
Coal investments remain to be a slow, steady gainer despite the lack of glitz and glamour. Companies like Joy Global (NASDAQGS: JOYG) that provide the equipment for coal mining processes are also gaining in interest and stock appreciation. Investing into coal mining equipment, coal mines, or in the many technology companies employed to produce “clean coal” plants are on the rise.
The process to use coal is very simple – you burn it. Burning coal generates heat which in turn is used to turn water into steam. Steam pressurizes and is moved by pipe into turbines, which are moved in action from the steam pressure. As the turbines move, the movement creates electricity which is then send to an electrical grid and distributed to your home and mine. If half our electrical energy is derived from coal, then even a fancy plug-in electrical car is still using non-renewable fossil fuels. The downfalls of coal usage are obvious. It’s dangerous to mine, non-renewable, and locally polluting. Pollution from the mining of coal extends into the local region where the coal was extracted.
Nuclear Power. Oh, such a controversial energy source. There are so many groups on either side of the fence on this one that there is more misinformation then facts. So I’m going to stick with the facts in this article.
I’m not a scientist, so this explanation will be a little simplistic. The nuclear process begins with the mining of uranium ore. The ore gets refined and processed from impurities and transforms into what’s called “Yellow Cake.” The uranium is then “Enriched” through a complicated conversion process to convert the solid into a gaseous form. This enrichment process leaves a by-product of depleted uranium which is then transferred into storage until someone figures out how to effectively get rid of it. The enriched uranium is converted again into its fuel form and then used via a nuclear reactor. The reaction itself involves the fission (splitting of atoms) which generates an enormous amount of heat. Just like in the coal processes, it’s the heat – not the uranium itself – that turns water into steam and turns the turbines to create electricity.
To go a little further into the workings of nuclear power. Water is a critical element in the safety of nuclear reactions. Water effectively absorbs the radiation and is the fail-safe device in each reactor. The nuclear element, if something were to go wrong, is dropped into a pool of water, which neutralizes the reaction. That being said, naval ships from icebreakers to aircraft carriers and long-distance submarines are powered by nuclear reactors. Great Britain, France, China, and Russia operate nuclear-powered submarines. In all, 43 countries operate over 600 submarines. The country with the largest number of submarines is Russia. Nuclear power allows ships to go farther and longer without refueling. Plus, being surrounded by water, ocean going vessels are more suited to the benefits of nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy at the reactor level is relatively green, emitting very little greenhouse gas. Nuclear energy is also efficient, yielding a high amount of energy for each plant with a small amount of fuel. Problems with nuclear energy lie in its waste, which have to be looked after for 10,000 years according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This waste can also be used to build nuclear weapons, otherwise known as “Nuclear Proliferation.” Both nuclear weapons and the inherent danger of the reactors make each one a terrorist target. But as with any technology, accidents can happen. A nuclear accident clean-up effort can last up to 15 years and topping $1 billion dollars, such as the one on the infamous Three Mile Island. But as with coal and oil, uranium is not in unlimited supply. Current estimates declare that we may only have a 30-60 year supply, depending on the actual demand.
The only way to fend off this HorseWoman is to lower demand. Later, I’ll show you how to reduce your demands, reduce your bills, and keep cool this summer. Stay tuned for Part 4 – The HorseWoman of Food.
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