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Week of 23 December 2019: Power & Energy: Fossil Fuels

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I have admonished readers a number of times over the years not to demolish their fossil fuel-powered assets. Although they may be out of favor at the moment, history indicates nothing is ever permanent in the energy sector.

Of course, many facilities are powered with natural gas these days and the natural gas boilers are, in general, kept in a current technology condition because of their popularity. In my career, there have been many improvements in gas burners and in emissions control technology related to these systems. The ease of transport from well head to burner tip is a major factor in the popularity of natural gas (as well as its low cost due to fracking).

Coal seems to be the form of power that is really out of favor, although there are many coal boilers still operating. If we are serious about using coal (and we are not at the moment), "mine mouth" generating stations seem to make the most sense. Deliver that energy as electricity and keep the deleterious affects of coal operations at the mines, not scattered all over the country.

My prediction is that fossil fuels, even coal, will return to favor in the future. Reasoning? Knowledge and technology are constantly changing and hence the choices we make for energy.

Look at windmills. The Dutch used windmills to grind grain centuries ago when everyone else was using water wheels. Why was this? They had a nearly steady wind supply and lived on flat land, where water wheels were impractical--no streams with a fall in them.

Today, all our concerns are centered around what comes out of the stack--emissions. When there is a solid understanding of emissions and their effects we can settle on energy sources. Unfortunately, the science necessary to figure this out is in its infancy.

The energy crisis (see this column, 2 Dec 19) has gone through two phases. The first phase was the "We are running out of energy!" phase where we took solace in the vast coal reserves we have here in the United States. In the seventies these were predicted to last four hundred years or more. The second phase, which we are in now, focuses on emissions.

What we do know is this--the basic physics and other science related to exploiting energy for human consumption has not changed. What we don't know is the full knowledge of what that science is and how it affects us and our surroundings. We have lots of guesses and some fairly good assumptions, but the answers are not final. I suspect the fossil fuels are not the ogres they are made out to be at the present.

Regardless of energy source, all of them are dangerous when untamed--not properly harnessed and controlled. Keep up your safety training on the proper procedures for interacting with them.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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