Questionable 'Green' Power

Albuquerque, NM - California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Governor, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, agreed to push for 30,000 megawatts of green power at the launch of the Western Governors Association North American Energy Summit in mid-April. That much "green" power would replace about 40 large fossil fueled plants. But, as the desert plays tricks on one's perception, the green in those megawatts could be a mirage.

The whole idea is for Western states to explore increased use of renewable power. But the definition of "clean" among some Western governors is suspect. According to many, coal is clean, nuclear power is clean, and new nuclear plants to crack hydrogen for clean energy fuel stock is clean.

Granted, the states that most of the governors represent are coal-producing, as are the Canadian provinces represented. The conference was also smack in the middle of Department of Energy territory, with Sandia Labs nearby, as well as other DOE outposts. Most of them just can't get enough of fiddling with engineering technology. Some of that technology boosts wind power, and some solar photovoltaics, but coal and nuclear retain a big footprint in federal research at the labs.

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson announced that he and his "new best friend -- just kidding," Governor Schwarzenegger, agreed to not only promote 30,000 megawatts of new clean energy in the West by 2015, but to increase efficiency by 20 percent by 2020. An April 12 press release signed by Richardson and Schwarzenegger couched it in these terms: "Clean energy and energy efficiency could become a significant economic growth center and could help create a national economic growth cycle." No details were made available.

While the new green megawatts are a laudable goal, Richardson shrugged when pressed to define what could be considered "green" energy between the two states. All the other state leaders admit that California is a weathervane, a leader. They all also admit that California does not exist without effect on other states -- they were all affected by the 2000-2001 energy crisis. But they don't seem to understand fully that green power in California -- where hydroelectric power is not green unless it's a teeny tiny dam, and where environmentalists try to stop wind power due to bird kills -- is a different shade of green than what they are considering in their states. The green in states like Wyoming and Colorado veers into the olive and sepia toned shades of "green." It would be political suicide in California to promote coal as "green" energy, or nuclear, but here such assertions are as acceptable as coyote road kill.

"It sure is better than coal," said environmental lobbyist V. John White, even if the new 30,000 megawatts are a browner shade of green than he'd otherwise support.

"Green" technologies being pushed -- not necessarily by the governors -- for Western states include:

Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory's (INEEL) nuclear-hydrogen initiative. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by steam-reforming methane. "The current growth in hydrogen demand is already sufficient to justify the development of new, environmentally responsible methods to produce hydrogen using nuclear energy," notes the Lab. This fits in nicely with the Bush Administration's hydrogen economy push. "We need to advance to a hydrogen economy" for both transportation and power plant fuels, said Kyle McSlarrow, Department of Energy deputy secretary. While hydrogen itself is a clean fuel, it needs energy to create it. So far, natural gas has been the fuel of choice to make hydrogen.

Clean coal for hydrogen, another DOE program. "Our nation can rely on its abundant coal reserves to produce hydrogen, while capturing CO2 emissions and producing electric power. With significant production of hydrogen from coal, and development of a hydrogen infrastructure, our nation can establish a hydrogen economy," according to a paper from DOE's Office of Coal Fuels. The office suggests developing an "education campaign that communicates the benefits of alternative forms of energy, including hydrogen and fusion."

Coal bed methane promoted by the Governors' Association. While methane in coal mines is responsible for canaries' demise and unintentional explosions, it can be a substitute for natural gas. "Coal bed methane represents a key component of our nation's energy supply and accordingly should continue to be developed," notes a handbook created for this meeting. "[We] share and encourage the use of best practices that will promote the sound, efficient, and environmentally appropriate development of coal bed methane resources." The governors say that Rocky Mountain states could have as much as 63 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from coal seams. The wells are better than strip mines for the coal itself, but the governors suggest camouflaging the wells. Water pollution remains a concern.

J.A. Savage is editor of California Energy Circuit.

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