The Clean Energy Myth

As the nation and Connecticut confront the multiple challenges of providing energy to fuel society, address climate change and manage finite and dwindling natural resources, we all have to move past the myth of clean energy. While some forms of energy are cleaner than others, all produce greenhouse emissions, if not in use, than in production, and all deplete resources.

In his March 5 column, “State sending mixed messages to fuel cell industry,” for example, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere claimed that fuel cell technology is a “clean industry” for small power generation of electricity. The truth of the matter doesn’t support the claim. The author argued in favor of state financing of the industry, pointing to the operational cleanliness of fuel cells.

Fuel cell technology for generating electrical power is cleaner than combustion of fossil fuels but it, nevertheless, is not “clean” because Greenhouse Gases (“GHGs”) are inevitably emitted.

Similarly, hydrogen, wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal operate cleaner in transforming natural resources to electricity, but they still require combustion of fossil fuels at various intake points in the cradle-to-grave processes.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts the chemical energy from methane in natural gas into direct-current electricity. It does this through the chemical reaction of positively charged hydrogen ions with negatively charged oxygen ions. Hydrogen gas is separated from the methane through the application of heat. Next, the hydrogen gas is passed through a membrane at the anode, which strips an electron from the atom resulting in a hydrogen ion. The free electron travels to the cathode, resulting in the formation of a negative oxygen ion.

Fuel cells generate electrical power quietly and efficiently without hydrocarbon pollution. Unlike power sources that use fossil fuels, the byproducts from an operating fuel cell are heat, electricity and water. Together hydrogen and oxygen form water, which drains from the cell. As long as a cell is supplied with hydrogen and oxygen, it will continuously produce electricity.

Next, the direct current is sent to an inverter — with its own life cycle energy consumption — for conversion to alternating current and distribution to homes and businesses.

However, the cells are not self-producing; they require fossil fuels at each step in the extraction, manufacture, production, assembly and transportation of all the raw materials, including natural gas and oxygen. This means that the byproducts of combusting fossil fuels results in hydrocarbon pollution – carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, mercury, etc.

And someone has to make these and all “cleaner” energy devices. Instead of discharging the byproducts of combustion from a single smokestack, the pollutants produced in the making of devices are emitted from smokestacks at numerous locations. In the process, natural resources are depleted.

Manufacturing plant construction and operations require energy and that energy typically comes from natural gas, coal, oil or nuclear fuel, which itself requires exploration, extraction, production, storage/processing and transmission. The energy production depends on drilling equipment, wells, processing equipment, pipelines, compressors, etc.

At every step of the way energy is used, pollution created, resources depleted.

Not only are fuel cells and other renewables not environmentally clean — not even close to clean — but cell manufacturers have never analyzed the quantity of energy consumed over its life compared to the electrical energy delivered, which is alternatively known as Energy Payback Ratio or Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI).

If the energy invested is greater than that delivered from renewable natural resources, then the production becomes economically unviable.

Hydropower is the king of renewables, the most efficient power source in terms of energy payback. Nevertheless, the EROEI for all renewables is less than 10 to 1. In other words, it takes one energy unit to get 10. To put this into perspective, in the 1950s, the ratio was about 100 to 1 for fossil fuels.

It is disingenuous to claim that fuel cells and other renewables, in general, are clean when ignoring the greenhouse gases associated with the total energy investment. Such factual and glaring omissions misinform readers by painting a false impression of renewable technology benefits. Admittedly, renewables operate cleaner than fossil fuels in generating electricity; yet, no one has proven that the total energy consumed in production and operation results in zero or near zero pollutants.

To have an honest discussion, environmentalists and the media — including The Day — should acknowledge that while renewables operate cleaner, they are not clean over their life cycle.

Robert Fromer is an environmental consultant residing in Windsor. A former New London resident, he is an occasional contributor to The Day opinion pages.

 

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