From the talent of Mean Joe Green, aka Joe Mohr.
One of the things that happens when you write a book is that people quickly ask when you’re going to write your next one and what it will be about. Funny thing is, despite my busy schedule I’ve actually given this some serious thought. Not that I’m committing to anything just yet, but I’ve thought about what the subject matter might be.
I think it might be water. Fresh water in particular. Global warming has a real chance of causing fresh water to become something we will have in short supply. Although some areas of the world are getting too much rainfall, others are getting hit with unprecedented drought (e.g. the southwestern US), and those trends are only getting worse.
I believe most people think a little bit about fresh water and recognize the importance of being careful with it. Nobody wants to waste it unnecessarily and almost everyone hates the idea of dumping industrial waste into fresh water lakes. But there are still a lot of people who aren’t as smart with it as they should be. For example, the best time to water lawns isn’t in the middle of the daytime with the sun beating high overhead, because much of the water quickly evaporates. It’s better to do so early morning before sunrise, or after sunset. That way, the water stays where it’s supposed to and waters the lawn, rather than simply disappearing into the air. We may think about how precious fresh water is, but we don’t necessarily do much about it.
Even more importantly than just thinking about watering the lawn properly, a lot of people aren’t aware of how much fresh water is used in the generation of electricity. The statistics are rather alarming. According to a US Geological survey in 2005, 53 percent of the fresh water Americans use is for the production of electricity.
Coal uses the most, a reason the US statistics are as high as they are since Americans get more electricity from coal than any other energy source. Each megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated from the combustion of coal uses more than 16,000 gallons and consumes almost 700 gallons, all for cooling purposes. But don’t forget that water is also used in the mining process, creating a sludge that can totally pollute the freshwater source the water is drawn from because that’s usually where it returns.
Nuclear power is in second place for fresh water use. Nearly 15,000 gallons of water are used with nearly 600 gallons consumed per MWh of electricity generated. Mining of uranium again uses water similar to the mining of coal, and water is also needed for the storage of the fuel rods.
Renewable sources of energy will help this degree of water consumption. Solar panels and wind turbines require no significant water consumption. Hydroelectric power, a common source of electricity in Ontario and Quebec, even has a degree of water inefficiency about it, although it’s not the same as the pollution of water that goes along with mining of coal or uranium, or the consumption of water involved in the cooling processes associated with those particular sources of energy. The “inefficiency” associated with hydroelectric power is because about 9 billion gallons of water evaporates behind hydroelectric dams every day, enough for the needs of 50 million people. Of course, that water isn’t consumed or polluted; it’s simply returning to the atmosphere, to fall as precipitation somewhere else.
I think this is yet one more reason why the traditional energy sources comprised of fossil fuels are worth avoiding. Everyone is aware of the greenhouse gas emissions and the way those are affecting global warming and climate change, although certainly some skeptics and deniers argue to the contrary on that point. But now we’re realizing what it’s doing to our sources of fresh water too.
Some people suggest that desalination plants will be our way to combat this issue in the future when fresh water is becoming more scarce. By removing salt the oceans’ saltwater, we can have a nearly endless supply of fresh water. What people don’t realize, however, is the nearly astronomical amount of energy required to power desalination plants, enough to provide fresh water for the more than 7 billion people living on the planet, let alone alone the other species dependent on fresh water. And if we need more water to be used in the generation of electricity, it will become an endless loop of silliness, ad infinitum.
If the 20th century was the century dominated by oil, future centuries may very well become dominated by fresh water. It may become the most precious commodity on our planet. We’d better respect it and be more careful with it while we still have a good supply around. Renewable sources of energy are one other way for us to help preserve it.
As a physician, I’m not very fond of coal. An article in Scientific American published in August 2011 pointed out that although all sources of energy for the generation of electricity have their risks, coal is the riskiest in developed nations. Reviewing 1800 accidents over thirty years, coal’s risks were mostly associated with the mining stage. For oil and gas, distribution was riskiest, and for nuclear energy it’s the power stations that run the greatest risk.
However, the authors of the Scientific American article point out that the greatest loss of life from fossil fuels is due to the pollution itself. In the US, the average loss of life from the particulate matter associated with the burning of fossil fuels is substantial:
—hospital admissions for pneumonia: 4,040
—hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease: 9,720
—premature deaths: 30,100
—cases of acute bronchitis: 59,000
—asthma attacks: 603,000
—lost workdays: 5,130,000
The combustion of fossil fuels generates a number of toxic by-products including lead and mercury (neurologic poisons), dioxin (affects the endocrine system), chromium and arsenic (carcinogens), and sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (which cause acid rain). In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association estimated that air pollution in Canada caused 21,000 deaths, over 92,000 emergency department visits, and more than 620,000 trips to the doctor. The costs for both loss of life and health care were estimated at $8 billion.
Perhaps you can see why as a physician, I’m not fond of coal. It plays such a large part in this problem. Notice I haven’t even brought up the fact that the combustion of coal generates more greenhouse gases (GHG) than any other source of energy.
The Pembina Institute has just released a report on the status of coal-burning as a source of electricity in Canada. Entitled “The High Costs of Cheap Power: Pollution from coal-fired electricity in Canada,” it reviews where things are at in our country and where they could be.
As of 2010, coal plants were seven of the top ten GHG emitters in Canada (two of the others were associated with the Alberta tar sands). The very largest emitter in the country is the Sundance coal electricity plant in Alberta.
Different provinces use different amounts of coal. In fact, four of them—British Columbia, Quebec, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Prince Edward Island—don’t use any coal at all. And Ontario is planning to phase it out completely by 2014. In contrast, Alberta which is the worst offender gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from coal. Of the six provinces that use coal, three of them—Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia—generate more electricity from coal than any other source of energy.
Granted, Ontario gets much of its electricity from nuclear and hydro sources with coal playing a much smaller part, so it’s easier to phase out than it would be in Alberta. But if one province can make the necessary changes to remove the dirtiest fossil fuel, surely others can at least minimize it.
Every move away from fossil fuels is beneficial to our environment and our own health. Hopefully coal will continue to diminish as a source of energy for Canadians. As the authors of the Pembina report conclude, “Reducing conventional coal plants from Canada’s electricity supply will lessen the high costs of coal pollution to human and environmental health, and capitalize on one of Canada’s most cost-effective ways to reduce GHGs.”