Admitting that there is no perfect solution to our energy needs, Hannes Leetaru believes that the enemy of the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.
More to the point, Leetaru believes that future problems will look a lot like the ones we’ve had for decades.
“The most important thing to consider is that we need a reliable electricity grid,” he said – and he believes one way to ensure that the grid is effective and diverse is to allow for the transportation of electricity from different areas.
“For example, wind is a good source of energy in Wyoming,” he said. “If the grid was extended and made larger (capable of carrying more electricity), then wind could be a greater mix for the national needs.”
Leetaru, an AAPG member, geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey and one of the speakers at this year’s AAPG Division’s Energy Forum, says that part of the difficulty in achieving this is overcoming the long-held beliefs about alternative forms of energy on both sides of the equation – those who think it will be a panacea and those who think it’s quaint.
“Both nuclear and coal have a negative public perception and it is already becoming very difficult to build new coal-fired power plants that do not have carbon sequestration capabilities,” he said.
Nuclear and coal, indeed, carry with them more than their share of baggage – but Leetaru says there are problems with other alternative sources.
Even those more universally accepted.
“As for the darlings of the alternate universe, solar and wind,” he says simply, “they’re unreliable,” adding that it is probably wise not to get too carried away by the promise of renewable energy in the first place.
Running down the roster, Leetaru sees both the problems and the promise:
- Solar is geographically limited to the southwest United States. Places like Illinois do not get enough sun and it rains too much. Also in the winter, the states in the northern latitudes, such as Michigan, have too short a day to get much help from the sun.
- Wind also is geographically limited. The best wind (consistent wind) occurs in the western half of the United States. Illinois is the last eastern state to have reliable wind energy.
That does not mean that it cannot be done in the eastern part of the country, it just is more difficult and less commercial.
- Hydroelectric is limited by the regulatory framework and by location.
It is almost impossible to build a new dam because of the incredible environmental impact it would have on the environment, he points out. You would be taking pristine valleys and filling them with water.
- Biofuels are very controversial because they may cause degradation of the environment.
It would be sad to have the Amazon Rainforest cut down so we can have more energy from sugar cane, he observed, which is a current challenge in Brazil.
- Carbon sequestration also is geographically limiting, because it requires sedimentary rocks that have porosity and a seal that would keep the CO2 within the target reservoir and not allow its migration to the surface.
It’s not that Leetaru is pessimistic, he insists. He’s just realistic.
Speaking of nuclear and coal, he says, “At this time there are no other viable alternatives that could totally replace these two fuels.”
“With present technologies,” he added, at best, “renewable would be limited to about 25 percent of our energy mix.”
It is not, as many suggest, going to be cheap or easy. “The cost of electricity,” he said, “is going to go up. The goal is keep it reliable.”