Energy Alternatives Compared at WVU Sierra Club Meeting

by Dee Fulton on December 4, 2014

WVU Sierra Club Presentation

Student presentation compares coal, natural gas, renewable energy sources

From the Article by Corey McDonald, WVU Daily Athenaeum, December 3, 2014

The Sierra Student Coalition, a student branch of The Sierra Club – the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization – held a presentation Tuesday. The lecture compared the economic impacts of coal energy and energy created by natural gas on the mining industry, along with the potential future benefits of solar energy.

The presentation was by Grant Speer, a senior mining engineering student at West Virginia University and a member of the student coalition.

Prior to the 1990’s, coal energy was the most valuable source of energy for the country economically. However, recent economic directions have shown trends toward natural gas as a more efficient source of energy, economically speaking. “In the 90’s they further developed the combined cycle gas turbine system, which is similar to your open cycle system in your car engine,” Speer said. “That technology became more marketable which furthered investments.”

Starting around 2007, new technologies were applied to the already existing gas drilling technologies that aided in the economic significance of natural gas. These new advancements propelled investments even further for this industry.

Coal-related energy, on the other hand, has shown a declining trend economically, showing a significant reduction in shares.

“Coal-fired power generation has decreased by up to 52 percent from a 2008 high,” Speer said. “There is this so-called ‘war on coal’ that the President is waging with the EPA on coal miners that has basically been created by the mining sector. If there’s a war on coal being waged, it’s being waged by natural gas.”

Further examination into coal technologies shows costs to maintain coal usage have increased. Carbon-capture technologies along with additional regulations to emissions other than carbon – such as mercury and sulfur – have been imposed on the industry, but these regulations are not economically favorable.

“Right now there are 32 facilities that are expected to close, there’s another 36 that are on the fence,” Speer said. “They may decide transition into natural gas; for some it’s a good decision, for others it’s smart to cut their losses.”

Natural gas has its own costs as well. Many documented instances have shown a danger in pumping natural gas. Wells designed to pump natural gas have shown a tendency to fail, causing leakage into the surrounding environments, which in turn creates hazardous environmental issues, most notably to drinking water.

“While the costs and benefits between coal and natural gas remain debatable, other under-utilized energy resources remain a viable and foreseeable option that could not only become economically achievable within the next decade, but has also proved to be effective in different countries including Germany and Spain,” Speer said.

Comparing insolation graphs, Speer demonstrated the potential for Solar production for the United States. “On May 11, 2014, Germany was able to meet 74 percent of their daily demand solely on renewables, primarily solar while also using gas,” Speer said. “If the Germans are able to do it, there’s no reason we should not be able to meet the same standard here; 22.9 percent of Germany’s electrical grid comes from solar. By contrast, gas right now in the U.S. is at 25 percent. Right now the Germans are able to do with solar what we’re trying to do with natural gas.”

Speer explained while renewable energy been progressing in different countries, it has gotten off to a slow pace in the U.S., as subsidies granted by the government are more favorable toward the natural gas industry.

“According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2010 the oil and natural gas industry received over 500 billion dollars in subsidies, renewable resources got 10 billion,” Speer said.

At-home solar technologies are on the rise and are predictably a strong capital investment. “In parts of the southwest right now, the solar panels have already reached price parity with gas. They’re at 7.2 cents per kilowatt hour versus the 6.6 for coal and 6.1 for gas,” Speer said. “Once you get the proper subsidies in there – or if you take subsidies out of the coal and gas areas – it will become more economic to transition to solar.”

Speer said presenting the lecture was important to help educate those who may not know much about the issues.

“I wanted to present this to everybody because the economics of why we utilize certain fuels and not others is something the public doesn’t necessarily understand,” Speer said. “I’m opposed to burning coal but in favor of gas because I think we can do it the right way to help transition to renewables by 2050.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

A P Mama December 4, 2014 at 11:03 pm

Gas is not any kind of answer to energy generation.

We need to be looking at the environmental toll the extraction of gas is taking: air, water, soil contamination, methane pollution, radioactivity, de-watering, spills, accidents, dumping, injection wells, earthquakes, poisoned groundwater…why are these FACTS missing from the discussion? This is much deeper than sheer economics.

We are dealing with the destruction of LIFE. We are having the wrong conversation.


A P Mama December 4, 2014 at 11:06 pm

The subsidies to fossil fuels alone are enough to make one choke.

There is clearly some kind of favoritism going on here.


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