John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Publisher offers ideas for oil spill plaguing Coast

The big Gulf oil spill now in its fourth week continues with the first efforts at control just bringing the flow in check. So clueless is BP (now we know it stands for Big Pollution) that they’ve opened a toll-free number to solicit ideas about how to block up the pipe. I suggested that they stuff Dick Cheney and Sarah “Drill-Baby-Drill” Palin in there along with the scrap golf balls, old tires and other materials that BP proposed for its “junk shot” to block the oil flow while it drills to intercept the well shaft deep beneath the ocean floor.

Recriminations reluctantly aside, there’s one myth that the American people are going to have to give up: cheap energy. There’s just no such thing. However, for decades we’ve pursued a foreign policy that has allowed us to perpetuate the myth. The result is decades of foreign entanglement in the Middle East that has fostered blowback in the form of the rise of radical Islam and presently has this country hamstrung in two wars with no real strategy, no tangible goals nor exit plan that can be agreed upon.

As it turns out, the real cost for petroleum based energy policy is now coming due and the interest is extraordinary. There is no cheap gasoline. We didn’t pay the price on the front end and now we’re going to pay on the back end.

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And coal? Plentiful, yes, but clean? The integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) proposed for Mississippi Power’s lignite plant in Kemper County is arguably the cleanest conversion process yet to turn coal into energy. But Mississippi Power wanted to require customers to finance the construction by paying extra on their electricity bills years in advance of its coming online. When in late April the Mississippi Public Service Commission ruled that construction costs rate payers were to finance be capped at $2.4 billion, Mississippi Power balked and said the commission’s conditions “make it impossible,” its spokesman said.

There’s just no such thing as cheap energy. And although the IGCC process proposed for the Kemper County plant would “capture approximately 65 percent of the carbon emissions,” according to Mississippi Power, no mention is made of the thousands of acres in east central Mississippi where the lignite was to have been strip-mined to provide the fuel for the plant.

Nuclear energy? It can be created in abundance, but it’s expensive, both in the construction cost of the power plants and the long-term, yet-to-be-determined costs for storing spent fuel.

Solar and wind energy? Abundant in places, with the potential for solar energy generation great in the South. The collection of solar energy allows possibilities for decentralized power generation. In other words, instead of a huge, mega-collectors owned by the power company, solar energy collection can be dispersed among thousands of solar collectors installed on homes and businesses. When the sun is shining, the individual solar systems generate more power than is needed on-site, so it’s fed back into the grid. When the solar power is absent, power is drawn from centrallized power generation plants through the grid.

The drawbacks to utilizing solar and wind sources include, of course, the huge cost of those thousands of individual collector generator systems and the infrastructure to integrate them into existing power company grids to allow electricity to flow in or out.

Again, there’s no such thing as cheap energy, but I wonder if the prospect of a vast, decentralized system of solar and/or wind generated electricity is frightening to big power companies who see the potential for a loss of control when the public becomes less dependent on the concentrated sources of electricity generation that they own?

Along the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana and no telling how far flung elsewhere, we are facing the back end costs for what we thought was cheap energy. The only alternative left to us is to realize that energy from any source comes with a high cost that makes it too precious for frivolous waste.