Semi-awesome news: renewables “sort of” overtake nuclear.

Via WaPo, we learn that renewable energy has sort of overtaken nuclear power in 2011!

In 2011, for the first time in decades, the United States got more of its energy from renewable sources than it did from nuclear power. Not only that, but renewables are growing much faster than any other energy source.

Why, that sounds almost awesome!

Here’s the breakdown: According to the EIA, renewable energy provided 11.95 percent of domestic U.S. energy production through the first nine months of 2011, compared with just 10.62 percent from nuclear. But the trick is defining terms. Wind and solar actually play a very minor role in this story (1.45 percent and 0.15 percent, respectively). The vast bulk of “renewable” power in the United States still comes from large-scale hydropower (4.35 percent), biomass (3.15 percent) and biofuels (2.57 percent). The two things that most people associate with the term “clean energy” — namely, wind and solar — are nowhere close to overtaking nuclear power.

Oh.  Okay, so this story might not be almost awesome.  But the twin goals of meeting our energy needs and reducing the catastrophic environmental impact of our species both intersect at clean, renewable energy — and in our crapitalist economy, growth in the renewable energy sector is the only thing that can propel it past the finish line.

Going forward, however, that could well shift. The nuclear industry is more focused on replacing soon-to-retire plants than expanding outright. There aren’t likely to be too many more large-scale hydropower plants in the United States — the prime hydro sites have all been taken. And as for biomass and biofuel, critics have raised serious questions about whether either of these sources are as sustainable as alleged. On the other hand, solar and wind were by far the fastest-growing energy sources last year — solar electricity grew 46.5 percent and wind by 27.1 percent

Crapitalists take note:  now I’m no Wall Street trader, but those seem like good numbers.  Almost…dare I say it…awesome?

(though it’s unclear whether either source can maintain that hectic pace now that Congress has allowed a few key subsidies to expire.)

I see.  And when, pray tell, will Congress allow the massive subsidies for oil and gas companies to expire?  (That is a rhetorical question.  But it would be really, unquestionably, absolutely freaking awesome if Congress did.)

Of course, there’s more than renewables. The other big story in EIA’s data is that natural gas has been rising fast as an electricity source — growing 1.6 percent in the past year — while coal use has been falling noticeably (4.2 percent). That’s likely to continue in the years ahead, as the EPA’s new pollution rules push utilities to shutter aging coal plants and cheap shale gas floods the market.

Shutting aging coal plants is unquestionably awesome.  However, “cheap shale gas” is a misnomer of Orwellian proportions.  Natural gas from shale is extracted by a process called hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking for short.  Fracking consists of blasting underground shale formations with millions of gallons of water containing a slew of toxic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals; this releases the natural gas trapped in the rock.  The relatively “low cost” of shale gas for those companies extracting it, the power companies that burn it, and ultimately consumers is driving the uptick — but there looms a very large “balance due.”

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency, then under the direction of the noble and completely disinterested Bush/Cheney regime, released a finding that fracking poses only a miniscule threat to underground drinking water sources.  The study — which was concluded before public complaints of contamination really started emerging — completely ignored many critical aspects of fracking such as the disposal of toxic fluids, water quality and fish kills.  Touting the flawed study, former Halliburton CEO and then-Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney successfully pressed Congress to pass the so-called “Halliburton loophole,” which exempted its lucrative fracking operations from having to comply with key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act.  But if fracking were so safe, why would Halliburton need these exemptions?  (That is also rhetorical question.)

As development of natural gas wells has increased in the last decade, so have the predictably disastrous results:

  • In 2006 drilling fluids and methane were detected leaking from the ground near a gas well in Clark, Wyoming; 8 million cubic feet of methane were eventually released, and shallow groundwater was found to be contaminated.
  • In the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, 13 water wells were contaminated with methane (one of them blew up), and the gas company, Cabot Oil & Gas, had to financially compensate residents and construct a pipeline to bring in clean water.
  • Emissions vented into the atmosphere [include those] linked with natural gas itself, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs); health effects of exposure include neurological problems, birth defects, and cancer.  In 2008, measured ambient concentrations in rural Sublette County, Wyoming [Dick Cheney’s home state. -Ed.] where ranching and natural gas are the main industries were frequently above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards of 75ppb and have been recorded as high as 125 ppb.
  • A Duke University study published in 2011 examined methane in groundwater in Pennsylvania and New York states overlying the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale.  It determined that groundwater tended to contain much higher concentrations of methane near fracking wells, with potential explosion hazard; the methane’s isotopic signatures and other geochemical indicators were consistent with it originating in the fracked deep shale formations, rather than any other source.
  • In DISH, Texas, elevated levels of disulphides, benzene, xylenes and naphthalene have been detected in the air, alongside numerous local complaints of headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, dizziness, muscle spasms and other problems.
  • In Garfield County, Colorado, another area with a high concentration of drilling rigs, volatile organic compound emissions increased 30% between 2004 and 2006; during the same period there was a rash of health complaints from local residents.
  • A 2011 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed groundwater contamination, noting “evidence of natural gas migration into freshwater zones in some areas, most likely as a result of substandard well completion practices by a few operators.”
  • The New York Times reported radiation in hydraulic fracturing wastewater released into rivers in Pennsylvania at 116 of 179 deep gas wells…but its effect on public drinking water supplies is unknown because water suppliers are required to conduct tests of radiation “only sporadically.”
  • Another study in 2011, titled “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective” and published in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal identified 632 chemicals used in natural gas operations. Only 353 of these are well-described in the scientific literature; and of these, more than 75% could affect skin, eyes, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; roughly 40-50% could affect the brain and nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% were carcinogens and mutagens. The study indicated possible long-term health effects that might not appear immediately, [and] recommended full disclosure of all products used, along with extensive air and water monitoring near natural gas operations; it also recommended that fracking’s exemption from regulation under the US Safe Drinking Water Act be rescinded.

How much do all of those things “cost”?  (Yes, that is yet another rhetorical question:  these things are simply not counted, just like bodies of lifeless Iraqis.)  And while we’re at it, we must also remember to ignore any potential costs of fracking-induced earthquakes:

A report in the UK concluded that fracking was the likely cause of some small earth tremors that happened during shale gas drilling.

Some argue that despite all of the environmental devastation and impact on human health, natural gas development is a net positive:  it burns 50% cleaner than coal or oil, and thus represents a necessary, temporary bridge to a halt in global warming until more sustainable alternatives come online.  I call bullshit:

The use of natural gas rather than oil or coal is sometimes touted as a way of alleviating global warming: natural gas burns more cleanly, and gas power stations can produce up to 50% less greenhouse gases than coal stations. However, an analysis of the well-to-consumer lifecycle of fracked natural gas concluded that 3.6–7.9% of the methane produced by a well will be leaked into the atmosphere during the well’s lifetime. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, this means that over short timescales, shale gas is actually worse than coal or oil. Methane gradually breaks down in the atmosphere, forming carbon dioxide, so that over very long periods it is no more problematic than carbon dioxide; in the meantime, even if shale gas is burnt in efficient gas power stations, its greenhouse-gas footprint is still worse than coal or oil for timescales of less than fifty years.

In addition, U.S. coal exports have not been slowing, they have been surging in recent years.  What difference does it make in global emissions if U.S. coal is burned in Europe or South Korea instead?  (That is my last rhetorical question for the day.)

Here in New York, our governor is currently under relentless political pressure to lift a tenuous state ban on fracking.  I myself would prefer not to turn New York state into a toxic, radioactive, geologically unstable shithole for the short-term benefit of Dick Cheney and his wealthy friends, but maybe that’s just me.  My inner cynic realist is not optimistic that Mr. Cuomo will hold up under the waterboarding, although to be fair the man is quite capable of delivering genuinely awesome policies.  Hey, he made gay marriage happen.

But Iris, readers might naturally ask, for all of your bitching and moaning about fracking, what exactly do you propose?  Have no fear, beloved readers!  The Palace Think Tank™ has developed an inexpensive, entirely reasonable, elegantly simple, instantly implementable solution to the vast majority of the worries and woes associated with fracking:

Require all personnel associated with fracking companies, including their executives, boards of directors, lobbyists and/or former U.S. Vice Presidents, to only drink water from wells located near their fracking operations.

And if Governor Cuomo lifts the fracking ban, him too.

The problem solves itself.

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