By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Economic savings and health benefits lead the argument for green energy. In addition to cutting down on air and water pollution, leaving fossil fuels in the past is attractive to many whose sights are set on renewable energy. An energy crisis in the EU just added to the list.
Energy prices in the European Union (EU) have skyrocketed recently due to limited natural gas deliveries from Russia and increased global demand in a COVID-recovering world. These concerns, among others, seem to many people to be another sign that the transition to green energy is of increasing urgency, especially since most EU nations currently depend on gas-fired power stations to provide electricity to their citizens.
What are some of the other motivations to leave fossil fuels behind us, and how grounded are they in reality? In his video series The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained, Dr. Michael E. Wysession, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, explained the science behind the issue.
Moving on beyond Coal
“The combustion of coal releases a large number of pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter—that’s soot—ozone, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead,” Dr. Wysession said. “Fifty percent of all U.S. toxic air pollution comes from electricity generation, and mostly from coal.
“Burning oil and gas also creates air pollution, though because the compositions of the fuels are different, the pollutants are different.”
According to Dr. Wysession, about 70% of carbon monoxide pollution comes from the burning of gasoline and diesel fuel, as well as 40% of volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides, and one-third of all carbon dioxide released. Everything from lung cancer, asthma development, and exacerbation and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to infant mortality is linked to air pollution, especially from coal.
“These toxins and the nitrous oxides, they’re not part of the hydrocarbons; they’re contaminants that naturally exist in the ground and come up with the petroleum,” he said. “But the refining process for petroleum doesn’t remove all of these contaminants, and some of them are still in the gasoline you pump into your car or truck.”
Can It Be So Simple?
Switching from loosely regulated fossil fuels to even such an incremental change as the national standards, imposed by bills like the Clean Air Act, sounds like it would cause a national crisis. It could be a crisis that, at least for a time, would be irrevocable. In other words, such a major industry shift sounds daunting at best and catastrophic at worst.
How expensive—and, therefore, how much of a burden on a nation’s economy—has it been to implement the Clean Air Act?
“A 2011 study calculated that between the years of 1990 and 2020, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments [would] amount to $2 trillion in direct financial economic savings compared to just the $65 billion in the costs of implementation,” Dr. Wysession said. “These enormous savings are primarily a result of reductions in human health problems and a loss of business workdays.
“The EPA estimates, for example, in just the year 2010 the enforcement of the Clean Air Act prevented more than 160,000 early deaths, and 13 million lost workdays.”
Moving to green energy would be a larger industry shift with pros and cons that would have to be weighed in practice rather than in theory. However, if the EU’s current energy crisis is any indication, the change may be worth considering.