John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 30, 2008

John Howell Sr.

Clean coal non-existent in TVA’s power production

Those of us who live on the periphery of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s service area might tend to forget how much of the electricity we use comes from coal-fired generators. Yet in Panola we are on the downstream side of the electrical grid system that transports power from TVA’s generating facilities into our homes and businesses. And those facilities include the Kingston Fossil Plant near Knoxville where a containment dike broke last week, releasing hundreds of tons of coal ash onto nearby homes, roads and into the watershed.

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The underlying lesson is that there is no such thing as “clean coal.”

Those of us who live outside areas where coal is mined have been more familiar with coal’s potential to pollute the atmosphere through the release of carbon dioxide and other gases when the fuel is burned. Last week’s sludge slide west of Knoxville focused attention on another dirty side of burning coal: the toxic ash left behind.

The sludge contains mercury, arsenic, lead and benzine which have been concentrated by combustion into toxic levels in the waste fly ash left behind. There are even some studies that suggest that the sludge contains sufficient radioactivity to pose a problem. (And we thought that radioactive waste materials were only associated with nuclear power generation.)

Those who live in the immediate area and downstream from the sludge slide await with understandable cynicism the release of test results that will measure the toxicity of this ugly, gray sludge now covering their land and flowing into their streams. By the old “Looks-like-a-duck, quacks-like-a-duck …” measurement, those folks in east Tennessee already know they’ve been poisoned.

They know that just like they know first hand the tremendous toll mining the coal takes on the environment. In the last 20 years, up to one million acres of hardwood forest, 1000 miles of waterways and more than 470 mountains and the communities that once surrounded them have been removed in Appalachia alone by the strip mining to get at the coal.

Still overlooked and little understood in the southeastern U.S. is the potential for solar power generation. When harnessed, the same sun in whose heat we swelter for so many months each year can generate a tremendous amount of electricity with none of the hazardous byproducts. Of course, that potential for generation goes down during winter months and cloudy days, but in an area of the country where we have so much sun exposure, solar-generated electricity should be a no-brainer.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is changing our underlying philosophy towards generating the electricity we use. Since early after its first availability in the last century, we have viewed the generation of electricity as the function of a centrally-located generating facility. (For us, a coal, oil, hydro or nuclear generating power plant on the TVA system.) As demand for electricity has grown and grown exponentially, its production has been concentrated in mega-generators.

It’s time to push more generation of electricity further down the grid. More solar generation from homes, businesses and industries would lessen the demand placed on the mega-generators and reduce the heavy cost on the environment they bring.

Solar power gets much good lip service, but powerful, vested interests in the coal and nuclear industries have billions at stake in making this country’s goal of energy independence dependent on continued generation at facilities they own or plan to build. (Mississippi Power is planning a $2 billion production facility in Noxubee County which will convert low-grade lignite into gas to fuel generators. “ … first, … best, cleanest…,” Mississippi Power CEO Anthony Topazi told the Meridian Star, describing the coal gasification technology that would produce electricity and capture half of the carbon dioxide by-product. No mention was made of strip mining necessary to get the lignite or what solid waste byproducts will remain. The Noxubee plant, expected to be complete between 2013 and 2015, has already received $7 million in tax incentives.)

Solar power, by comparison, limps along. TVA has a Green Power Switch program through which it will buy electricity produced by solar power for 15 cents a kilowatt hour. Consumers can by 150 kilowatt blocks of the green power for about $4 more each month added to their electricity bill. “The dollars from every block of green power you buy go directly back into Green Power Switch,” according to the TVA web site describing the program. Though “resources like sunlight and wind are free,” TVA’s Green Power costs more because, the information on the web site continues, “the technology for capturing their energy is still more expensive than traditional power generation methods.”

In the Orwellian world where oxymorons like “clean coal” are bantered about by Democrats and Republicans alike, it should be expected that those “traditional power generations methods” will see that capturing solar energy will remain expensive.