Friday, October 14, 2016

Fly in the Ointment

"Moi" next to El Paso Electric CEO, Mary Kipp

Back on September 15th I had the great honor to be invited to the celebration of El Paso Electric's new Montana Power Station. What a beauty - a work of masterful engineering and design. It made me proud to be an El Pasoan. This new and efficient power plant will emit 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal burning generators. El Paso Electric had already severed its ties with coal. Bravo.

However, there may be a fly in the ointment. To be exact, there may be several.

I should preface my remarks. Technology - "clean" technology - is not without its tradeoffs. There are always consequences. There is nothing 100% clean. The production of solar panels is not without environmental consequences. Is a modern, efficient natural gas powered station good? Yes, for now. Ultimately to reduce carbon emissions, we will still need to switch to renewables.

Take a look at the infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

You will have to click on the image to read it. You can also read the analysis at The Climate Risks of Natural Gas.

Switching to natural gas does reduce carbon emissions. However, if you take into account the increasing demand for electricity (and as I type this I am aware of the demand that I am making for energy), we are back to almost the same problem as we have had with coal. True, natural gas doesn't put nasty things "such as lead, mercury, nickel, tin, cadmium, antimony, and arsenic, as well as radio isotopes of thorium and strontium." Yum. (See Environmental Impacts of Coal.) It does, as far as I know, add some nitrous oxides to the atmosphere. 

Besides the bugs mentioned by the Concerned Scientists (I hope that occasionally they get out and have some fun), there is another fly: fracking. Fracking is reviving the Texas oil business. The cheap gas produced from fracking is great for the electric power industry. It makes good business sense to buy and use natural gas.

I asked EPEC's PR guy, Eddie Gutierrez, where they get their natural gas. His answer: "We purchase gas from a number of different suppliers through a competitive bid process so the actual suppliers will vary over time. We probably have at least 15 different suppliers, including Apache, Sequent, Shell, EDF, Freepoint, UET.  Gas that we purchase from these suppliers primarily originates in or around the Permian Basin and once purchased, we will ship to our plants using rights that we have on the Kinder Morgan (old El Paso natural gas pipeline) and Oneok pipelines."

So then I asked him what he thought about fracking and its environmental impact. He would get back to me, he said. He had to discuss it with the attorneys. To date, no response.

I asked the question because I doubt if much natural gas any longer comes from non-fracked wells. Besides, something tells me that you just can't call your distributor and tell her that you want all non-fracked natural gas. In buying and selling and distributing and burning, I don't think such distinctions are made; and, if they were, they would be terribly expensive - unsustainably expensive.

Still, the question remains and not just for EPEC - for the entire industry moving more and more to natural gas. Do they, will they take into consideration the environmental damage caused by fracking? EPEC says that they are a solar leader. Let's hope that they have a long range goal of 100% renewable energy.

To be sure I need to revisit the Montana Station. I didn't have the opportunity to take the tour after the ceremony. I'm sure that I can learn more.


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