The current controversy about how to regulate the gas industry and keep fracking complexes away from homes and businesses provides one more example of how Boulder and Colorado’s actual energy plans contradict our stated goals of having a clean and carbon free electrical system by 2030. This is because natural gas is necessary to run an energy system based on “renewables,” and the only viable source of natural gas in Colorado now is from fracking wells. In Boulder’s case the city has laid out six goals for its energy system, and, as I attempt to explain, the goals for the system are contradicted by the plan. We need to re-think our approach.
• Ensure a safe and reliable energy supply – Boulder is to become a wholesale purchaser of energy generated from wind and solar, with natural gas backup for electricity to 2030. When you consider the difference between what renewables promise and what they deliver, it is clear why they must rely on cheap natural gas. So, once the fracking bubble bursts, the renewable energy system may collapse because the energy that must be invested exceeds the energy produced. In terms of reliability, consider how well a wind- and solar-based energy system would respond to a major winter storm or a natural catastrophe, such as even a moderate eruption of Yellowstone. Volcanic ash does not mix with turbines and solar panels.
• Ensure competitive rates – When you remove tax subsidies for wind and solar, and the planned phase-out of natural gas, and then must rely on battery storage for energy, the system becomes totally uneconomical. This doesn’t even include what could be a $1 billion-plus cost for separation and purchase of the electrical system from Xcel.
• Reduce carbon emissions and pollutants – The energy plan will not reduce either carbon emissions or pollutants. When all of the steps are included, wind, solar and methane systems will certainly generate vastly more pollution than would a new molten salt reactor or even continued use of existing coal plants. There are thousands of pounds of concrete, steel, copper, rare earth minerals and other exotic and toxic elements in every wind and solar system, and the methane that backs them up is 50-80 times worse a greenhouse gas than is CO2. Molten salt reactors keep all of their wastes contained in a stainless-steel reactor vessel for eventual reprocessing and storage.
• Provide customers with a greater say about their energy supply – The energy customers in the city went to bed in November thinking they had had their say about the plan, but woke up to find the students passed the measure. Furthermore, if we go ahead, how much say will we really have as purchasers of power on the spot market.
• Promote local economic vitality – Having an expensive and unreliable energy system is not a way to enhance economic vitality. Boulder needs to have energy that is cheaper than coal and available 24/7/365, and methane is too valuable to burn up for electricity.
• Promote social and environmental justice – “Microgrids” are supposed to provide reliability, but they are just portions of the grid that can be isolated during periods of shortage and run on their own, probably with diesel or gas generators. OK, if you are on the right side of the switch, but it will leave the rest of us in the dark. The windmills and solar farms will not be in wealthy areas, or even in town at all, and the pollution from the manufacture and disposal of the equipment will be left in China and other countries where there are few environmental regulations. This is neither social nor environmental justice.
Instead of pursuing this road to nowhere, the city should consider working with the current group of scientists and engineers that are developing advanced nuclear power. Nuclear reactions are 1 million times more energetic than fossil fuels, and they don’t generate any CO2 or other pollutants typical of the carbon fueled or renewable systems. It makes no sense for us to spend what could be over $1 billion to separate from Xcel, when we will end up in the exact same dilemma then as we now face, which is how to have electricity without destroying either the atmosphere or the oceans. Maybe after all these years the atom, especially the thorium atom in the right kind of reactor, may be our best friend after all.
William B. DeOreo lives in Boulder.
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