Editor’s note: Centre Daily Times is observing Earth Day with a three-day series about climate change issues and how they affect Pennsylvania.
Mountainous, verdant Pennsylvania has been a coal state for most of its history. But in order to keep the state lush and green, its energy resources need to get a little greener as well.
Laura Miller, a senior energy engineer at Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant, said coal used to be good but is slowly being replaced with greener options.
Pennsylvania is about 50 percent coal-fueled, but Miller said there is a push for a “greening of the grid,” or a move away from coal toward cleaner power options.
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Penn State, a major consumer of energy in Centre County, is transitioning away from coal entirely in favor of more eco-friendly options.
“We’re getting rid of our coal,” Miller said, “because it has more of a carbon footprint than natural gas or almost any other fuel that is burned.”
To make up for lost energy without coal, the university — and the world — must find other and more renewable ways to generate electricity.
Where do we get our power?
There are a number of ways to create power, and each has its own benefits and detriments.
Solar, hydro and wind — some of the cleanest and most eco-friendly power sources — are often unreliable due to their dependency on weather conditions, Miller said.
While ideally the entire grid could be powered by clean renewables, the realities of cost and reliability outweigh the desire for completely clean power.
Miller said solar panels and wind turbines are a good option — but not a perfect answer.
“Solar and wind are good because they’re low-carbon, but they’re not dependable,” she said. “They’re subject to the forces of Mother Nature. ... And water in a river (hydropower) is pretty steady, but even it’s subject to droughts and flooding.”
OPP Senior Energy Engineer Mike Prinkey said it is not feasible for wind power to be a main power source in central Pennsylvania. It is too expensive, not reliable enough and the technology isn’t where it needs to be.
Wind power is great when you have a lot of wind, Miller said, but “if the technology gets better, it could be the right answer.”
“As technology gets better, I’m sure there are things that we aren’t even thinking about right now that might make sense. ... Some of the things we can’t quite make work now might be the answers in the future.”
Prinkey said solar is not yet practical for big entities like Penn State, but with government tax credits it may be feasible for private residences or small boroughs to install solar arrays or panels without a significant financial burden.
Another coal-alternative is burning biomass.
Biomass doesn’t have the carbon footprint of coal, but it requires a massive volume of burnable material to create the same amount of energy.
And while natural gas creates a lot of energy with an efficient amount of fuel, it leaves a greater carbon footprint.
“Natural gas is pretty easy, but it’s not as clean as biomass,” Miller said. “There’s no one perfect fuel.”
The solution is to maintain a diverse energy portfolio.
Diversity is key
Miller said the benefit of having a diverse portfolio is safety and reliability. It allows the grid to integrate renewable energy sources while having baseload sources such as oil and natural gas as stable backups.
Incidents such as last winter’s polar vortex demonstrate the value of power supply diversity, according to a U.S. Power Diversity Special Report conducted by IHS, a company that provides information and analysis to support the decision-making process of businesses and governments.
Greater demand for natural gas and electricity to heat homes and businesses in the U.S. northeast strained the capability of pipeline systems, which led to localized price spikes. At some points, for brief periods, additional natural gas was not available at any price.
Instead, oil-fired power generation provided a critical alternative supplement to the over-strained natural gas supply.
Without other forms of power generation, many areas could have been left without heat in the frigid temperatures.
While it is imperative to maintain this diversity in the electrical grid, a move away from reliance on fossil fuels would be best for the environment.
Technology is on its way to meeting the demand. In the future, it may be possible to rely more on cleaner power supplies.
However, advancing technology alone is not a golden ticket to a healthier climate.
Man vs. wild
With all the advances in renewable energy technology, Miller and Prinkey agreed that human behavior is a deciding factor in affecting climate change.
Reductions in energy consumption through habits or behavior and increases in efficiency throughout daily life are the keys to sustainability, Prinkey said.
Miller said, however, that people are often deterred by perceived cost — and inconvenience — of renewable energy, recycling and other sustainable actions.
“It’s a financial decision as well as an environmental decision,” Miller said. “People want to do the right thing, but sometimes the financial risk prevents them from doing that.”
Prinkey said there is also an issue of disassociation when people use energy that they’re not paying for directly.
For example, students who live in dorms were found to waste far much more energy than those who pay electric bills in houses or apartments. They tended to leave on more lights, TVs and fans and not adjust thermostats to moderate temperatures.
“For some reason the connection didn’t resonate with the students as wasting energy or wasting coal,” Miller said.
“When people are not paying directly, there is a disconnect,” Prinkey said.
Prinkey mentioned hotel rooms, for example. Hotel guests tend to be less responsible with electricity than they would be in their own homes.
Miller agreed that economics drives good decisions and added that “education is an important part of it.”
“If people don’t make the connection of their actions to greenhouse gases, then they can’t help,” Miller said. “They can’t do the right thing if they don’t understand the connection.”
In short, there’s no easy answer. Technology continues to advance and allow people to make smarter environmental decisions. But it all comes down to individual choices.
“Reducing the amount of energy you use is even more valuable than using a clean renewable source to generate that energy,” Prinkey said. “Not using energy is the most sustainable thing you can do.”
How the electrical grid works
Pennsylvania is part of the PJM Interconnection electric grid, a regional transmission organization that connects much of the Northeastern United States.
Penn State Office of Physical Plant Senior Energy Engineer Mike Prinkey said the electric grid comprises three components: generation, transmission and distribution. Each needs to be operating in sync for the system to work.
Generation is the part where energy is harnessed and created: solar panels collect sunlight, wind turbines turn or natural gas is burned.
Electricity is then carried through the 450,000 miles of high-voltage power lines and 160,000 miles of overhead transmission lines that connect electrical power plants to homes and businesses in the U.S.
And because it’s impossible to store large amounts of energy, the distribution grid must be able to allocate energy as it is created and route the electricity to the area in demand.
“The electrical grid works like a system of roadways — when one route is cut off and unusable, there are other ways to reroute the energy,” Prinkey said.
Because of this constant demand for energy, it’s important for the grid to have reliable sources of baseload power such as coal, natural gas and nuclear. Among the three of them, these baseload power sources provide almost 90 percent of the electricity in the grid.
However, burning natural gas and coal results in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s why renewable energy is important — and why engineers work hard to bring the technology up to the caliber necessary to meet the demand.
OPP Senior Energy Engineer Laura Miller said there is a lot of research behind improving the components of solar panels, wind turbines and other types of renewable energy.
“We’re always evaluating, we keep hoping,” Miller said. “As technology gets better, I’m sure there are things that we aren’t even thinking about right now that might make sense. … Some of the things we can’t quite make work now might be the answers in the future.”
In the meantime, carrying a diverse energy portfolio allows for a slow but steady “greening of the grid” without compromising the security of reliable energy sources.
— Cate Hansberry