Turning Power Plants Into Fossils: Electricity After Fossil Fuels

This article does not exist to debate about whether climate change exists, it does. Countless scientists and 189 countries all agree that it does. To combat climate change and stop the destruction of our planet, those 189 counties have signed on to the United Nation’s Paris Climate Accords. They have made a pledge to limit temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius this century. Or else, the world may face unprecedented catastrophe.

The United States has just returned to this agreement, and to look for a path towards meeting these goals, this article will examine the ways the United States can move away from using fossil fuels for the generation of electricity and realistically switch to more environmentally friendly options. In doing this there are four main options that I see as being potential replacements for fossil fuel-generated electricity: Hydroelectric, Solar, Wind, and Nuclear.

Why Focus on Fossil Fuels?

Before examination on the individual methods of power generation can begin, you may be asking, why would we want to focus on fossil fuels in the first place? To answer that question, It is imperative that we focus our efforts on switching away from fossil fuels because according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “The burning of coal, natural gas, and oil for electricity and heat is the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

A quarter of all of our greenhouse gas emissions come from generating power so if we could find ways to permanently and wholly switch away from burning coal, natural gas, and oil for power generation we would in theory reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the United States by a quarter, as renewable power sources (Hydro, Solar, and Oil) and Nuclear power all produce no greenhouse gas emissions in their operation.

This reduction is more significant than any other suggested both in terms of numbers and because it enables other solutions. Electric cars, for example, require tremendous amounts of electricity to function, and unless we are able to generate that electricity cleanly, any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be counteracted by their greater demand for power.

Renewable Power

There are three main ways to generate power that are completely renewable and require no consumption of materials to function. They are as follows: Hydro, Solar, and Wind. Each has a few sub delineations of different ways to derive power from the same source.

Hydropower

The most wildly used Renewable option today is hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power rests on the concept of using the force of moving water to spin an electromagnetic turbine that generates power. There are four ways to do this: Hydroelectric Dams, Pumped Storage, Diversion, and Wave Power.

Hydroelectric Dams

The West Coast will be familiar with the hydroelectric dam, as a majority of them are built in the pacific northwest. These block the flow of water from a river or lake except for a small amount that is focused and let through a small channel called a penstock where it spins a turbine thus operating the generator, (EIA). The main appeal of this is simplicity and the lack of maintenance; however, because of the simplicity in their design and our early reliance on dams, there is little room for innovation or expansion.

Diagram of a Hydroelectric Dam. Source: Tennessee Valley Authority (public domain)

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has found “In the early part of the century hydroelectric plants supplied a bit less than one-half of the nation’s power, but the number is down to about 10 percent today.” Our power usage has only gone up over the past century; however, the production of more hydroelectric dams has not kept up with the demand for power. The USGS concludes that this is because there is no more good land left and the early money invested in hydroelectric dams has dried up. This leaves no room for expansion and growth. The conclusion to be derived from this is that current dams should continue to be supported, but no more should be built.

Pumped Storage and Diversion

I am going to group pumped storage and diversion together because they are rather similar methods. They both use gravity to accelerate the water to high enough speeds to spin a turbine and thus generate power. Where the methods differ is how the water gets to that point.

In pumped storage, water is pumped up to a high location and stored in reservoirs. When power is needed the stored water is released and fed through the turbine using gravity. By having the water stored in a high location, this method breaks the reliance on the water cycle to bring water from the oceans to mountains.

While this solves one problem, it creates another, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA ) “Pumped-storage hydroelectric systems generally use more electricity to pump water … than they produce with the stored water. Therefore, pumped-storage facilities have net negative electricity generation balances.” Pumped storage is not able to net any power and only serves to fill in the gaps created by hydroelectric dams during dry seasons. To have a positive net output there would also need significant development which would be expensive and time-consuming. This time and money would be better spent on projects with greater potential.

In diversion, fast-flowing water from a river is diverted away from the river where assisted by gravity, it flows down a large distance before passing through a turbine that spins a generator. (National Geographic). This method is more friendly to the environment than hydroelectric dams, but at a much smaller scale making them have minuscule impact, and therefore, not to be considered as a potential solution.

Wave Power

This brings us to the final method, using the waves to generate electricity. While this method is still largely in development, it has some of the greatest potentials of any form of renewable energy, according to the US Energy Information Administration “The theoretical annual energy potential of waves off the coasts of the United States is estimated to be as much as 2.64 trillion kilowatthours, or the equivalent of about 64% of U.S. electricity generation in 2019.” (EIA).

While the figure may not be entirely realistic due to losses due to heat and the inability to fully harness all of the waves without disrupting other aspects of the economy, there is too much potential to not further develop this technology. If we are able to harness the wave to make power then we could replace a majority of the United States power generation.

Many methods are currently being developed and experts are predicting that multiple will be successful and implemented in combination with each other leech as much energy from the waves as possible. One of these experts is Belinda Batten who said “I wouldn’t be surprised if what we eventually find is there will be a device that we use in deeper water, and a device that we use nearer the shore,” (Yale).

Diagram of a Potential Wave Power Generator: Source: OpenEI

The area of wave power that is the most remarkable is its reliability. The downfall of other forms of renewable forms of electricity (solar, wind, and dams) is that they are weather-dependent. They require a specific weather event to happen to make power. Wave power does not have this limitation as the waves do not stop based on seasons.

Solar

Similar to wave power, Solar power has incredible potential. “The amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in an hour and a half is enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a full year.” (Energy). The potential is clearly there; however, in order to harness that power from the sun it needs to be captured and converted into electrical energy. There are two ways to do this, through photo-voltaic (PV) cells or through concentrated solar power (CSP).

Diagram of a PV Cell. Source: Energy Education

Photo-voltaic cells are the traditional blue panels that everyone is used to. These cells absorb the photo-radiation (light) from the sun and transform it to electrical energy. They do this by using the energy from the sun to cause the electrons (charged particles) from a material such as silicon to jump up to a higher valence where they can be harvested as electricity. (Harvard). These can be made into very small panels or collections of larger panels formed into arrays.

These are most commonly seen atop buildings but can also be formed into solar farms. When installed on a building they provide localized power for only the building that they are installed in. While they help to supplement electrical generation from fossil fuels, they do not have the efficiency to replace the power generation on these localized levels.

This brings us on to CSP, CSP uses mirrors to focus the energy from the sun and use it to heat water and generate electricity through a steam turbine. This method requires large amounts of flat land, so this method more inclined to be used in large-scale farm applications.

Both options have an efficiency of roughly 7–25%. However, where they differ is in cost, acceptable weather conditions, and storage. Photo-voltaic wins in both cost and acceptable weather conditions. Photovoltaic cells are easier to manufacture and don’t require flat land to operate. This greatly reduces the cost in comparison to CSP which requires more manufacturing cost and terraforming to reach peak efficiency. This also means they can be used in more situations than CSP, especially when you take into account that PV can be used in non-optimal conditions; whereas, CSP cannot, (Energy Sage). For these reasons if solar power is to be used, which I believe it should then PV cells should be prioritized over CSP.

Wind Power

The final form of renewable energy is wind power. This method uses the kinetic energy of the wind to spin a turbine and thus generate electricity. Wind has some obvious benefits and some subtle downsides that harm its large-scale expansion.

The advantages, much like other renewable forms of energy are that they produce no greenhouse gasses, and unlike other renewable sources are that they are more efficient than fossil fuels. Solar power sounds very good on paper; however, the issue with solar power is the available space used to make turbines and wind farms, environmental disruption, and the cost.

Wind turbines need to be built away from cities where buildings can block the wind. In addition, they are aesthetically displeasing so people in cities opt to have them built far away. They can either be built offshore in the ocean or in more remote terrestrial areas, often on hills. Because of their requirement to be away from urban areas, the power they produce must be transported long distances to meet the power demand of urban areas, (Energy). This is a very difficult and expensive endeavor that greatly reduces the cost of wind turbines. Because of the limited application potentials for wind turbines, I believe there to be better potential replacements for fossil fuels.

Nuclear

This brings us to nuclear power. While not-technically renewable, as materials are consumed in the process, we have enough nuclear-capable materials to last us into the foreseeable future. Nuclear power is power captured from either splitting of an atom known as fusion, or fission the creation of an atom.

Fission

Currently, all nuclear reactors use fission technology. Splitting atoms, notably enriched Uranium 235, release a tremendous amount of energy. This energy is inherently unstable, and because of that, it is immensely difficult to harness into power and not bombs.

The disasters of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have forever tainted nuclear power in the eyes of the United States. Because of this our nuclear energy is rapidly aging. According to the EIA, “The average age of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors that were operational as of October 31, 2020, was about 39 years.”

To put this in perspective, most of our nuclear reactors are older than the World Wide Web. In many cases do not have updated safety infrastructure. This could potentially lead to another incident on U.S. soil. While reactors are able to provide a very high return on their energy investment and are capable of replacing fossil fuels, negative public opinion has blocked them from getting the development that they need. It will be incredibly difficult and unlikely to changes people's minds on nuclear fission, so instead, I purpose we instead switch to nuclear fusion.

Fusion

The alternative to nuclear fission is nuclear fusion. This works through the creation of atoms, rather than the splitting of atoms. The reactors work through combing two isotopes of hydrogen deuterium and tritium under immense heat. This produces a plasma or charged matter similar to a gas, which is captured in the walls of the vessel where it can be used to create steam to spin a turbine, (ITER).

This technology is still in development, but in the south of France 35 counties, including the US, are collaborating on a project called ITER. “ITER will be the first fusion device to produce net energy. ITER will be the first fusion device to maintain fusion for long periods of time. And ITER will be the first fusion device to test the integrated technologies, materials, and physics regimes necessary for the commercial production of fusion-based electricity.” (ITER).

Model of ITER’s Reactor. Source: ITER

This project has some of the greatest potentials for generating clean energy. The materials are available and obtainable from the ocean. The only byproduct is helium, which is already in short supply. And there is little to no risk of meltdown if the reaction is interrupted. If the ITER project is successful in its mission, then we could be looking at a way to produce clean power indefinitely. Even though it is still in development ITER and nuclear fusion in general offer too much potential to ignore.

What Should The US Do?

Now that the merits of various solutions have been weighed, what should the United States do? As mentioned previously, the best way for the United States to fight climate change is to switch away from fossil fuels for the generation of electricity. There are three options that show promise in doing this.

Wave Power promises a high potential with some further development before it is reached. However, if the potential could be realized, it could replace a majority of the United States power demands, and for the first time in decades show a chance at innovation and expansion in hydropower.

Photo-voltaic Solar power also promises incredibly high potential with little to no further development required. While able to be used in farms on a large commercial scale. I believe the future of solar panels lies with individual consumers installing them on their houses for a low-effort way to use fewer fossil fuels and save some money in the process.

Nuclear Fusion, like wave power, has incredible potential. If the ITER project is successful and can be replicated in the united states, then we will have to look no further, as nuclear fusion offers limitless power made from obtainable materials with necessary by-products.

These three options are likely the key to providing power in a fossil fuel-less world; however, there is still much work to be done. These methods not only require further development but also need to be adopted in the highly competitive capitalistic society that is the United States. To do this I purpose we take inspiration from France’s nuclear program.

France gets three-quarters of its power coming from nuclear reactors. (https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-power-in-the-world-today.asp) This did this by having “only one utility (EDF) and one builder (Areva) working closely together,” (VOX). Rather than having companies competing with each other to deliver the cheapest power and inevitability turning to fossil fuels to save money, France’s government chose one entity to provide build reactor and provide power.

In the United States, this could take the form of a government corporation. Government corporations are a part of the executive branch and are structured more like a company than a government agency. We see examples of them every day in the United States Postal Service, or Amtrack. Because of their government support they do not need to worry about making profits for shareholders and therefore offer significantly lower prices to consumers.

This government corporation could receive government funding to make and sell clean energy from wave power, photovoltaic solar cells, or nuclear fission. They would also be able to choose a single design for each type like France has done with their fission reactors.

The funding and consolidation of designs would allow this government corporation to make renewable power cheaper than ever before. The corporation would not replace the existing companies but would exist as a cheaper and cleaner option, encouraging the consumer to make the choice to switch away from fossil fuels, while still respecting their liberties.