POLLUTION FROM ELECTRICAL POWER GENERATION
Teton County, WY has one of the lowest electric power rates in the United States. The low cost of energy makes it hard to justify increased energy efficiency based on cost alone. While energy improvements made in most states can take from one to four years for economic payback, due to our low cost of power in Teton County the equivalent improvements may take three to eight years to return their investment, assuming that our power costs do not rise.
Reducing the pollution from energy consumption is a different matter. Any improvements made to a home will have an instant effect on the quality of our air. Increasing the energy efficiency of a building by 30% over the minimum building code, or improving an existing building by 30%, will have a dramatic impact on what we put into the air. If all homes in the United States were 30% more efficient, that would prevent about 324 million tons, or 648 billion pounds, of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere each year. In areas with high heating or cooling energy use, this would be an average reduction of about 20,000 pounds of CO2 per year, per home.
From 1950 to 1999, annual world energy use rose from less than 1 trillion KWH (Kilowatt Hours) to over 14 trillion KWH and is continuing to grow. The U.S. leads the world in per capita use of energy. In 2005, the United States emitted 2.6 BILLION tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), 3.9 million tons of Nitrogen Oxide (NOX), 10.6 million tons of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), 83.5 million tons of Nitrous Oxide (N2O), 110 million pounds of Methane (CH4), and created 1.3 million tons of Ozone.
The effects of pollution come in many forms. Coal, oil and gas, which are used for 72% of electricity production, impact the land, cause secondary pollution sources, reduce wildlife habitat and create long term scars on the land. Nuclear power, which is used for 19% of electrical production, creates hazardous wastes that will be with us for thousands of years. Hydropower, while producing no emissions, restricts our rivers and is a limited resource. Biomass fuels consume water and fertilizer and are limited in what they can produce without taking away from agricutural land and affecting our food supply. Wind and solar power have little environmental impact. Altogether, wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, biomass and other alternate energies produce about 9% of our electricity. As our hunger for energy grows, ever-increasing levels of pollution become more alarming.
In the U.S., home heating and cooling accounts for about 49% of a typical home’s energy consumption, water heating is about 11%. Lighting is about 10%, computers and electronics about 8%, appliances about 8%, refrigerator about 7%, and miscellaneous use is about 7%. These amounts vary by lifestyle, home size, and the climate where the home is located.
Watts: Most appliances are listed in watts. Power consumption is listed as Kilowatt Hours (KWH), which are the watts multiplied by the length of time the appliance is running. A 100-watt light bulb running for 10 hours is 1,000 watts of power used, or 1-kilowatt hour.
A heating furnace, for example, may be labeled as using 15,000 watts and if it ran for 6 hours it would use 90,000 watts of power, or 90 Kilowatt Hours (90 KWH). This furnace could release up 32 pounds per hour of CO2 or 192 pounds over the 6-hour period of CO2, which is about $135 worth of electricity per month in Teton County.
1 gallon of propane equals 27 Kilowatt Hours (KWH).
A 100 watt light bulb running 24 hours uses 2.4 KWH, or ~ .1 gallon of propane.
One Kilowatt of power produced from coal emits 2.1 pounds of CO2 into the air.
A 100-watt light bulb running 24 hours uses 2.4 KWH, and consumes about .8 pounds of coal, which produces 5 pounds of CO2.
1,000 tons of CO2 emissions released into the air is equivalent to using:
- 47,000 propane BBQ cylinders
- 6 railcars of coal
- 129,000 gallons of gasoline
- is the annual energy use of about 100 U.S. homes.
Many heaters are rated in BTU’s or British Thermal Units. 1 Kilowatt = 3,412 BTU’s.
In 2005, the U.S. consumed 238 barrels of oil every second.
Carbon Offsets - One way to help offset carbon emissions is to purchase carbon offsets. By purchasing a carbon offset, one is paying for other companies to provide clean energy or use offsetting technology to reduce the world’s overall pollution. While this is good, it is much better to reduce one’s carbon footprint rather than paying companies to use other technologies. In a sense, a carbon offset is a license to pollute while doing nothing about the underlying problem.
In extreme climates, an average home’s heating or cooling usage can be about 2,000 KWH per month. Currently in Teton County, WY, this is equal to a $120 per month heating bill. This is equal to emitting 4,200 pounds of CO2 per month. Increasing the energy efficiency of the home by 30% would reduce the CO2 emissions by 1,200 pounds per month, or 14,000 pounds per year.
The Federal Clean Air Act lists almost 200 air pollutants which are deemed hazardous as targets for clean up. Included are items such as dioxins, benzenes, mercury and chromium. Mercury is of great concern as it is volatile, can travel long distances before being deposited, and is highly toxic.
CO2: Carbon Dioxide or CO2 is the major greenhouse-trapping gas. CO2 allows energy from the sun to pass through the earth’s atmosphere, where the CO2 traps some of the sun’s energy as heat. As the level of CO2 increases, more heat is trapped, raising the earth’s temperature.
Methane: Methane, on a pound for pound basis, has over 20 times the heat trapping capacity of CO2.
Ozone: Ozone is created by a chemical reaction from NOX – Nitrogen Oxide, VOC’s and sunlight. Stratospheric ozone provides us with protection from ultraviolet radiation while low atmosphere or tropospheric ozone is harmful to human health. Low atmosphere ozone is also known as smog.
Mercury: Mercury is emitted as an elemental vapor. However, it quickly changes to Methyl Mercury when it settles into water. The Methyl Mercury is then absorbed by plants and transferred up the food chain into humans.
Acid Rain: Acid rain is caused by the combination of SO2 – Sulfur Dioxide, NOX – Nitrogen Oxide, and moisture. Acid rain is responsible for increasing the acidicity of water, effecting fish and other aquatic life. Acid rain is a suspected cause of vegetation die off.
Water Pollution: One of the side effects of electric power generation is water pollution. This can be caused in several ways. Boilers used in power generation require purging and cleaning to get rid of impurities. The pollutants from this include nickel, copper, iron and other chemicals used in the cleaning process. Water seeping through coal stockpiles can leech out toxins, which can get into bodies of surface water or into the aquifer.
Coal: Coal, when burned, produces Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide, Methane and Mercury. The pollution emitted to produce 1 MWH (1,000 Kilowatt Hours) is 2,249 pounds of Carbon Dioxide, 13 pounds of Sulfur Dioxide and 6 pounds of Nitrogen Oxide. The amount of Mercury released is dependent on the quality of the coal. Coal burning power plants emit one third of all mercury pollution. Large amounts of water are often used to remove impurities from the coal. Water run-off through coal stockpiles can pollute water sources.
Oil: Oil, when burned, produces Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide and Mercury. The pollution emitted to produce 1 MWH (1,000 Kilowatt Hours) is 1,672 pounds of Carbon Dioxide, 12 pounds of Sulfur Dioxide and 4 pounds of Nitrogen Oxide. The water and other chemicals used for oil production add more contaminants into our environment.
Natural Gas: The burning of natural gas produces Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides, but at a lesser rate than the burning of coal. Methane, which is a primary component of natural gas, can be leaked into the air during production and transportation and any gas that is not burned completely will emit Methane. The average emission rate from gas-fired generation to produce 1 MWH (1,000 Kilowatt hours) is 1,135 pounds of Carbon Dioxide, 1.7 pounds of Nitrogen Oxide and .1 pound of Sulfur Dioxide.
Nuclear Energy: Nuclear power plants do not emit Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide, Methane or Mercury. The safe and long-term storage of left over radioactive waste has not been solved.
Hydro: Hydroelectric, while emitting no pollutants into the atmosphere, changes our river systems, limits natural fisheries and impacts other river-associated wildlife. Hydroelectric is a limited resource with little opportunity for adding future capacity for our electrical needs.
Solar and Wind: These forms of energy produce no greenhouse gasses. Currently, they are the energy sources that least impact the earth. Unfortunately, for the near future, they are limited in the amount of electrical generation they can produce.
Geothermal, Biomass, Tidal, Landfill Gasses, and Other Forms of Power Generation: These are other niche areas for power generation. Many of these are in their infancy or are not currently practical on a large scale.