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POL661: Lecture 11

POL661: Lecture 11

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Published by Chad J. McGuire

Energy

Energy

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Published by: Chad J. McGuire on Jan 06, 2013
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03/19/2014

 
 DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC POLICY
POL 661: Environmental Law
Lecture 11:EnergyIntroduction
The Laws of Thermodynamics tell us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but rather what we know as
energy
is really a constant
conversion
of energy from oneform to another. So we really are not speaking about ‘creating’ energy here but rather about
releasing
energy from one source and getting that release to give us energy fromanother source. For example, most traditional electricity generation is accomplishedthrough the movement of turbines that create electrical charges as a byproduct of their movement. Making the turbines move requires energy and large power plants need tofind ways to get those turbines to move.Hydrocarbons (coal, natural gas, oil) are traditional ‘sources’ of fuel to move theturbines; we burn the hydrocarbon as an
input
to create heat as an
output
. This heatoutput is then used as a
secondary input
to warm water and create steam, a
secondaryoutput
. The steam then becomes the
tertiary input
 by which the electric turbines aremoved creating electricity as the
tertiary output
. Hydroelectric dams do this same thing but instead of creating steam as is done in the burning of hydrocarbons, the flow of thewater 
(the input)
moves the turbines directly
(the output)
. We are essentially takingexisting energy from one source and using some of that energy to create electricitythrough a series of energy transfers.
1
In the burning of hydrocarbons, there are a number of energy transfers that must occur whereas there are less energy transfers in the use of dams or other methods such as wind or solar power. An example of the idea of energy
conversion, transfer 
, and
release
is provided in the following figure:
1
Each stage of an
energy transfer
process tends to loose some energy along the way.For example, as noted above, burning hydrocarbons (like coal) to create electricity is a
3-step
process. During this process energy is lost at each stage; not all of the energycontained in the coal is converted (passed) to the boiling of water to create steam, and notall of the steam energy is converted to the moving of turbines. Thus, the most
efficient
 forms of electricity generation are those where there are fewer steps (all things beingequal) because there is less opportunity to loose energy. Thus, hydroelectricity generationmay be more efficient than hydrocarbon electricity production
 from an energy transfer  perspective
.
 
Page 2 of 8Understanding that energy is neither created nor destroyed, we might not be tooconcerned with the idea of energy loss through a multistep process of converting energyfrom one form to another; we just know that it takes more energy in a multistep processto convert the same amount of net energy. For example, it will take more energy stored incoal to produce the same amount of electricity as hydroelectric power because there aremore steps in the process and thus more energy is lost during those steps. But we may begin to be concerned when there are
other costs
involved in the creation of energy byusing different sources of energy production. For example, if you need to burn a lot of coal to produce electricity (because there is wasted energy in the process), then one likelyneeds to look at the burning of coal and determine if they are other 
costs
incurred beyondthe loss of energy at each stage in the process. If so, we likely need to pay close attentionto those additional costs and particularly the impact they might have on our backgroundenvironmental conditions because, under our premise of the importance of backgroundconditions for human wellbeing, maintaining the current equilibrium state of theenvironment is a primary goal in achieving environmental objectives.The issue of 
other costs
may also be referred to as
externalities
. The use of hydrocarbons results in the release of carbon from a
stored state
(we get the carbon fromcoal, gas, and oil stored in the ground) to a
‘released’ state
as the carbon moves into theatmosphere and other components of the natural system after it is burned. Most of thereleased carbon gets added to atmospheric concentrations. The increased concentration of carbon in the atmosphere results in a greenhouse effect, trapping heat energy from theSun on the Earth. The end result is a pattern of warming that can have negative impactson our overall wellbeing. This is a good example of a situation where the creation of electricity (and gasoline from oil for combustion engines) is having unintendedconsequences (a feedback loop) that include climate change. A way of visualizing thissystematically is to consider the following
box model
application to the use of coal as asource of electricity production:
 
Page 3 of 8Beyond issues related to climate change, the use of hydrocarbons has other costs. For example, coal often contains
sulfur
that is burned with the coal during the first phase of energy transition. The sulfur is released into the air and can combine with other elementsto create chemicals that are harmful to humans and other living things. In addition, the particulates that are burned with the use of coal can cause
respiratory illness
and other 
air quality issues
for those within the surrounding communities to these power generation plants.
2
Finally, the production process of extracting coal for use in energygeneration can have consequences on the local landscapes and ecosystems. Collectivelythese costs can be substantial and are part of the reason why
energy policy
might movein directions that attempt to mitigate these costs, for example by utilizing alternativesources of energy production (conversion).As we explore the materials on energy, consider that we are not necessarily considering
energy
from the
 production
standpoint (literally the
conversion
of energy from a ‘stored’form to a different more usable form, like electricity). Rather we are attempting tounderstand the
associated costs
of energy production between different sources (inputs)so that we can better understand the feedback loops between energy choices as exampledin the figure above. Our goal is consider the different
inflows
(inputs) for energy production (hydrocarbons, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, hydro, tidal, etc.) and think about the interactions between the inflow and the
system component
. This will lead toconsideration of the
outflows
and
feedbacks
. It may be that through this process certain
sources
of energy production are shown to be superior based on the criteria chosen toevaluate this measure. At least this will provide us with a conceptual framework for 
2
It is due to such practices that the Clean Air Act (discussed under 
pollution controls
)manages stationary sources of pollution, like power plants, utilizing
best availabletechnology
methods to include ‘scrubbers’ that attempt to filter out the worst of the sootand residue that emerges from burning coal before it is released in smoke stacks from theenergy generation facility.

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