C.T. CARLEY: A flawed bridge to the future

By C.T. Carley

Steve Mufson writes in a Nov. 23 Washington Post article, “A Bridge to the Future,” about coal-fired electronic power production.
His position is seriously flawed. He depends on his flourish in writing but his “bridge” has no foundations to support it.
Mufson argues the death of coal-fired electrical power plants due to the availability and lower cost of natural gas, provided mostly by “fracking.” He looks at the issue through myopic eyes without seeing the broad issue of reliable electric power, not addressing either the estimated reserves of coal and gas or the effect of other energy sources like nuclear, wind, solar, etc.
Let us look for the moment at the larger picture by considering the answer to the following question. What brought about the demise of slavery ? (Has he lost his mind ?, you ask.) From the dawn of civilization man has sought a way to accomplish his tasks, that require work; i.e. a force moving through a distance. At first he had only his muscles, then he domesticated animals to help and then in a more effective way, using the muscles of slaves. Slavery existed on the earth for millions of years until a tusnamic event, the invention of the HEAT ENGINE. This device converts thermal energy to mechanical energy. Ah, now for the first time man has access to large amounts of work without using either animals or slaves. This single event changed the course of civilization for all time. Historians and philosophers make claims for civilization’s change to political events, religious events, health-care events, etc. But, the truth is that the heat engine was the cause, not the emancipation proclamation or some war, moral or civil.
No longer did man need to enslave others to do his work, he could use a heat engine. Ah, but the heat engine had to be fed thermal energy. So we burn things to get this thermal energy; wood, coal, gas, atoms, etc. Except for the minuscule fraction coming from wind and hydro power all the electrical energy we use today comes from a heat engine driving an electrical generator.
Now, which fuel is the best to supply the heat engine with thermal energy ?….we prefer burning things that produce the most thermal energy per unit weight. This leads to the primary fuels of coal, oil, gas and the atom. The burning of hydrocarbon fuels like coal, oil and gas yields not only thermal energy but also the products of combustion such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulfur compounds and others. Whereas nuclear energy emits no pollutants into the atmosphere.
Now, getting back to Mufson’s article. How should a person, a city, a state, a country select the fuel of their choice. Yes, it is basically an economic question; what is the cheapest ? Sadly the cost has been clouded by issues of public health, and scare tactics. The person or group charged with selecting a fuel for electrical power plants is basically in a maze, with questions, the answers to which are constantly changing. The price of gas dropped due to fracking. Is fracking polluting our aquifers ? The cost of coal increases due to EPA emission requirements, which change. The cost of nuclear power is high due primarily to regulatory handcuffs which change.
So, if you , the reader, had the power to choose, what fuel source would you pick to feed your heat engine ? I fear that there is no one, simple, answer. Things change and your choice today will likely look stupid in a decade or so.
Let us not join Mufson in applauding the demise of a couple of coal-burning heat engines. These old boys have been producing electrical power for Massachusetts residents for 60 years. Nice job, eh ? Don’t you wish your car would last 60 years ?
What to do ? It is obvious to me that nuclear power is the best solution. No air pollution, no trains or barges to haul coal (Mufson says they buy coal from Colombia…really ? Not U.S. coal ?). As one old enough to remember the “Atoms for Peace” message of the 1950’s the truths still ring true. Nuclear power is cheap, available, non-polluting and safe. The petty arguments between coal and gas are the trees of a greater forest that Mufson doesn’t see.
C.T. Carley, PhD, is professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University. He writes occasionally for the opinion pages. Contact him at ctcarley@bellsouth.net.