The Energy Chronicles – Part One: Genesis
“There is the reality of temperature changes over the last 40 years — actually we can say over 40 years there has been almost no increase in temperature.” Rep. David McKinley (R – WV.) Congressional Hearing, 9/18/13
“Science has not shown greenhouse gases to be a problem.” TX State Rep Wayne Smith (R – Dist 128) Interview with Austin Statesman, 4/17/13
“… there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas…” Rep Michele Bachmann (R – MN) Congressional hearing, 9/22/09
“… and that plant — that plant kills people.” Gov. Mitt Romney (R – MA) speaking in front of Salem Harbor coal burning plant 2/5/03
So who is right? Is carbon dioxide (CO2) harmless, or does carbon pollution kill people? Are greenhouse gases really a problem? Has the globe really warmed?
We frequently hear from environmental professionals that carbon emissions are harmful to people and the planet. Climate change is a result we’ve come to associate with carbon emissions, but why? We should explore the genesis of these assumptions and lay their factual foundations before automatically link carbon emissions and climate change. Following is the first of a three part series exploring how we create energy, the by-products of that creation, and the effects those by-products have on our planet.
Humans have been attempting to harness energy for hundreds of thousands of years. The uses of fire as heat and a light source are the most basic examples. Controlling energy in the form of electricity was pioneered in the early 19th century when Michael Farady was able to transmit an electric charge between two coils of wire. Later in the 19th Century, Nikola Tesla is credited with creating the design for the alternating current (a/c) by which we now transmit electricity.
Before Tesla could show us how to transmit large amounts of electricity across great distances, electricity had to first be generated. To do this, Charles Parsons designed a large magnetic turbine that generated electricity as it turned. It is no coincidence that the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY hosted the world’s first large display of electric lighting, as the near-by Niagara Falls was, and still is, capable of generating billions of watts of electricity from its water flow.
The canals that divert water from the Niagara River above Niagara Falls to the power generating stations can carry over 700,000 gallons of water per second. That water creates enough pressure to turn very large turbines, which in turn generate electricity. All power plants, one way or another, involve turbines being turned in order to generate electricity.
As much as the Niagara region and other areas with such water resources benefited from hydroelectric power, other areas without powerful riverflows also wished to benefit from generated electricity. While a/c transmission is relatively efficient, electricity is still lost during transmission, making long distance transport of electricity over wires an unviable option. These areas needed to create their own generating facilities using other power sources.
Enter the steam turbine. Steam turbines are turned by pressure from steam created from boiling water. That water can be heated from any conventional source. Today, the most efficient and common sources of fuel used to heat water to its boiling point are fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil), nuclear fission, or renewable sources such as biomass, concentrated solar, geothermal, and various other sources. Steam turbines are still the most common means of generating electricity, as 80 percent of the electric power currently used world-wide is generated by steam turbines.
Energy Today and Tomorrow
As technology advances, so do methods of generating electricity. There are many advancements in generation technology that do not require a steam turbine: windmills were developed around the same time as the water turbine, and continue to be improved; solar photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly to electricity; and electrochemical power creates electric current through combinations of base chemicals.
This is the state in which we find ourselves today: the vast majority of electricity is generated by machines based on technology that is well over a century old. However, this technology is still the most efficient and effective means of generating the electricity we have for a planet of over six billion people.
Part two will focus on how efficient these power sources are, as well as the dangerous side effects that accompany them.
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