One of the key components to having renewable energy achieving price parity with fossil fuels is the growth in global demand. As more systems are manufactured, efficiencies attributable to the learning curve and to economies of scale will allow the cost of RE systems to come down. However, in order to reach the global markets, you need a reputable product that meets the customers needs. By investing in science, technology, engineering, and physics the USA can lead this developing market for renewable energy products. While our political leaders debate the existence of climate change, the rest of the world has gotten busy developing products to meet this challenge. In a globalized market, the spoils are going to go to the leader in any given industry. Each firm has a duty to make a product better, cheaper, or leave the marketplace if they can not do this. If not, a hungrier competitor will definitely step forward to take your place.
An interesting article in the 9/3 Bloomberg Businessweek introduced a new method of coal mining that has the potential to provide energy while limiting GHG pollution and completely avoiding mountaintop removal – one of the most destructive practices known to man. Underground Coal Gassification (UCG) technology actually dates back more than a century but is only now gaining momentum thanks to the advances in technology as a result of the fracking boom. UCG involves drilling well into a deep coal seem, igniting the fuel, and harnessing the gas released through combustion. The CO2 is then pumped back into the ground to keep it from entering the atmosphere. Many of the most harmful substances such as arsenic, mercury, and lead are left in the ground alleviating the problem of what to do with the waste (remember the TVA holding pond disaster?).
There are plenty of downsides to this new technology – most notably the fact that you are in essence starting an underground mine fire (see Centralia, Pennsylvania). Other concerns are groundwater contamination, water use, and a slew of environmental issues. However, UCG has the potential to increase the USA’s exploitable coal reserves by a factor of 5.
It is well established that coal-burning power plants are some of the biggest polluters in our society but their environmental effects are not limited to the generating facility. From the beginning, whole mountains in Appalachia are blown up to access the coal in the cheapest manner possible. After the coal is spent there is still the problem of disposing of the coal ash that contains toxins and carcinogens.
Until our energy needs are fully met through renewable technologies, we are going to have to experiment with new processes that reduce GHG’s and are more environmentally friendly. UCG is not the cure to our energy problem, but it does address several of the most devastating by-products of using coal as a power source. To that end, it is definitely a technology worth researching.