Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saving Teachers with Natural Gas

I'm cross-posting this, so to speak, at a site for local school discussion; I'm not sure that will go anywhere, but I think it's worth a try. Anyway....

Back on January 25, the Syracuse Post-Standard said that Hamilton officials discuss proposed natural gas utility with school district officials, residents:

The creation of a natural gas utility in the village of Hamilton could save the Hamilton Central School District close to 50 percent — or $160,000 — on its annual heating costs, officials said Tuesday. The savings are equally substantial for the community’s two other main power users — 56 percent for Colgate University and 39 percent for Community Memorial Hospital.

That's two teachers who don't have to be cut -- year after year after year. Maybe three teachers. It's a big deal.

I'm adding this page on March 29th, because there's a Gas Utility Meeting Tonight | Radio Free Hamilton

There will a discussion of the village's proposed natural gas utility tonight at 7 p.m. in the large group instruction room at HCS. It will begin with a presentation about the planning that has taken place to date, and then be opened to questions and answers.

Natural gas is not a very-long-run option; it's a fossil fuel. It will run out. In the very long run, you're probably all going to do it the way I do it: there's a compressor in the basement below me, and when the thermostat behind my head says "Brrrrrr..." that compressor starts pumping heat out of the ground, using electricity (from Niagara, from windmills, eventually from solar panels attached to the wires now buried in foam insulation under my roof -- but also, for now, from coal). I take 50F water out of the ground and put it back in the ground 10F colder. In the summer, to a lesser extent, I take 50F water out of the ground and put it back in the ground 10F warmer, as the basis for air conditioning. You should do that too -- if you're building a new house. It was expensive to add to an old heating system, though; I'm not sure my system will pay for itself in my lifetime.

Natural gas can be a "bridge fuel", serving my kids but probably not my granddaughters. As Scientific American put it summarizing an MIT report, Natural Gas Could Serve as 'Bridge' Fuel to Low-Carbon Future

A cushion, but not a complete answer... Gas is an option for cutting power plant emissions and addressing global warming in the short term. But the researchers warned that the gas cushion shouldn't distract policymakers from addressing the need for nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for coal-fired generation. "Though gas frequently is touted as a 'bridge' to the future, continuing effort is needed to prepare for that future, lest the gift of greater domestic gas resources turn out to be a bridge with no landing point on the far bank," the report says.

Still, it's what we have for now. There is a local controversy about this, based on a list of concerns which I think deserve a serious hearing, but which don't, I think, turn out to be correct. The list has been circulating as "The Dirty Dozen", and I've received copies as email forwards and by door-to-door handout. I'll put one below, with my responses above. In the end, though, as Jim Bona put it, Natural Gas Utility for Hamilton is Green:

You can choose to go with natural gas and be green at the same time. It is a big decision with long lasting effects. I will vote to give the project the green light.

My summary, sent by email and edited here: I sympathize, but I mostly disagree. This is stuff I've thought about, as the geek on the Southern Madison County Natural Gas Landowner's Coalition steering committee (how's that for a mouthful? A few hundred parcels, mostly farmland, maybe 30-odd square miles. I don't expect to make any money personally, but I think it's a good thing to do.) As the Colgate guy mentioned at the village meeting, there was a Howarth study at Cornell that claimed shale gas was dirtier than coal, last year and it seemed perfectly respectable but turned out to have made a bunch of assumptions that nobody else agreed with. My take:

  • The endgame is necessarily about won't include shale gas;
  • Shale gas is a lot cleaner than coal, and is getting more so;
  • Natural gas doesn't kill nearly as many people per terawatt as coal which doesn't kill nearly as many as oil (solar and wind are better still; nuclear, oddly enough, is best of all)
  • Gas is a big help as a "bridge fuel" towards a wind/solar/biogas future;
  • Nothing's perfect, and neither companies nor regulators should be trusted.
Well, let's look at cleanliness; I hope everybody realizes the uncontroversial part:
Natural gas produces far lower amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides than any other hydrocarbon fuel (fossil fuels).[42] Carbon dioxide produced is 117,000 ppm vs 208,000 for burning coal. Carbon monoxide produced is 40 ppm vs 208 for burning coal[citation needed]. Nitrogen oxides produced is 92 ppm vs 457 for burning coal. Sulfur dioxide is 1 ppm vs 2,591 for burning coal. Mercury is 0 vs .016 for burning coal.[43] Particulates are also a major contribution to global warming. Natural gas has 7ppm vs coal's 2,744ppm.[44] Natural gas also has Radon, from 5 to 200,000 Becquerels per cubic meter.
And I think everybody agrees that you gotta watch that radon, whether it's in your basement or in a well. As Secretary Chu has pointed out, a coal power plant disperses more radiation per watt than a nuclear plant (by a factor of 100, actually.) But you gotta watch it.

Now, the controversy...but the controversy in this letter is not, so far as I can tell, really much of a controversy. The Howarth study is not well-regarded by the sources I've read...Scientists still feuding over natural gas 'fugitive emissions'

A study by Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, found that the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas could be twice as bad as coal over a 20-year timeframe and comparable at a 100-year timeframe. A fellow Cornell professor, Anthony Cathles, has been going back and forth refuting Howarth since the initial release of the study last year.... "There really hasn't been that much of an uproar about it, I believe," Malcolm said. "Mainly because, I believe, so many of the conclusions that were drawn from the report were patently ridiculous and the data that was used in the report was false." A number of studies have refuted Howarth's report, including information published by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a Carnegie Mellon study partially financed by environmental organization, the Sierra Club.

Lots of links available; Google is your friend, if you care. :-) Is there a real controversy, about real problems? YesYesYes! The real controversy has to do with drillers making a mess on the surface, or with drillers failing to seal their well casings correctly so that natural gas flows up the outside of the pipe and mingles with groundwater, or drillers being careless about pockets of gas near the surface (in the water table; people have been lighting up their tap water for a century or more, even with no gas wells...). Also drillers taking huge amounts of fracking water (heavy on brine, mainly, but also containing toxic stuff, mostly natural but who cares?) and trying to find some gullible municipality to accept it. Many bad things. Trust No One. The Truth is Out There. The reason for coalitions like the one I'm in is that you want to have lease terms that keep the company from doing bad stuff (and from paying too little, but "pay me enough" doesn't take much of a 60-odd page lease). And you also want to have regulations that keep the company from doing bad stuff; NY has been working on that, doing I think a pretty good job.

Okay, on with my second item, overall safety. It's absolutely true that natural gas is dangerous, and so is everything else, especially trying to get along without energy. (Of course energy usage should be minimized: we put in spray-foam insulation all over the place here. A nuisance when the electrician drilled into some wires he couldn't see, but definitely worth it.) We still need energy; to stop energy production would hugely raise the death rate. So, we want to compare sources of power: Snapshot of deaths per terawatt hour with recent reports on deaths from coal, oil and natural gas

Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China 278
Coal – USA 15
Oil 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass 12
Peat 12
Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro 0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

Coal is bad stuff. Let's not use more coal than we have to. (You may think that coal is not killing anybody near you. Well, maybe not. Coal Pollution Will Kill 13,200 Americans This Year & Cost $100 Billion in Additional Health Care Bills ...New York takes third with 945 dead from coal pollution.) Oil is bad stuff. Ditto. Replacing them with anything is a wonderful idea. Can we replace them with the safest option, namely nuclear? No, because the worst-case scenario for currently commercial nuclear is not acceptable. It may become acceptable with pebble-bed, thorium, etc reactors, but we should not be working with nuclear reactors that melt down if unattended or if the backup power goes off (as at Fukushima). Good reactors are possible, and this is an interesting subject, but it's not the subject of this summary. Our endgame for the moment does not count on local nuclear ever being safe; for the moment, we figure on the nuclear reactor that's 90M miles away, i.e. solar and wind and hydro. (We also figure on biogas methane, as a small thing we're learning how to do. Poop Power! It might be a pretty big thing someday, using your grass clippings and leaves and garbage as well as sewage to generate perfectly "natural" gas. And we'll certainly use that 50F year-round heat source/sink a few hundred feet down, and maybe, as drilling technology improves with natural gas experience, maybe we'll start using the much higher temperatures a couple of miles lower down, about twice as far as we now go for shale gas. But that's not a currently available option.)

So, how quickly can we move to solar and wind and hydro? Umm, well, hydro can be expanded somewhat, but maybe not much; we've been trying. Solar and wind do in principle provide enough power for everything. But they have problems, partly that they're expensive which is being cured slowly, but it's harder to cure that they're erratic and that we need electricity when the sun doesn't shine, even if the wind doesn't blow. So we need either

  • an alternate source of power, one that can be turned on and off easily, or
  • storage for solar/wind power, or preferably
  • both.
It happens that natural gas generators can be turned on and off much more easily than coal or nuclear or hydro (these are suitable for "baseload power", but they don't deal with variations all that well.) So solar and wind become more cost-effective simply because their gaps are plugged by having natural gas available. What about storage? Well, energy storage is a hard problem, but one of the things being worked on is "Compressed Air Energy Storage" where you push air in when you have extra energy and then let it push its way out when you need it: Compressed Air Energy Storage
Fast start-up is also an advantage of CAES. A CAES plant can provide a start-up time of about 9 minutes for an emergency start, and about 12 minutes under normal conditions. By comparison, conventional combustion turbine peaking plants typically require 20 to 30 minutes for a normal start-up. If a natural geological formation is used, rather than cavern air storage (CAS), CAES has the advantage that it doesn't involve huge, costly installations of creating the cavern in a salt dome. A depleted natural gas reservoir already contains the space required, in porous rock. Moreover, a CAES project used in conjunction with a gas turbine requires 66% less natural gas to create the same amount of power. Accordingly the emission of green house gases is substantially lower than in normal gas plants.
So using natural gas naturally leads towards wind power stored in CAES, first because it will increase the efficiency of the natural gas usage, and then because the depleted wells will be used for more CAES...and without CAES, or _some_ effective power storage mechanism, wind and solar can never be more than a small fraction of the total because we can't count on them to be producing when we need them.

and finally, rather than expound on points like banks not wanting a mortgage on leased property (a very good thing to think about if you're thinking about signing a lease, and a reason for land-owners to join coalitions like ours rather than signing company leases, but not really part of this discussion), or points like "no benefit" (no benefit? BTUs are cheaper. That's a benefit!) or points like "NOT intended for local use" (the pipeline already connects from end to end, and is already being sold for low prices to homeowners in the areas that do have connections, in fact in much of the US -- 62 million homes?)... I simply pass on to

my final point: Trust No One. Well, I already said that. Don't trust companies or regulators or activists or me. Each of us lives largely in a world of our own invention, having limited contact with any "real" world that may or may not be out there. And that's okay.

And in fairness, here's the point of view with which I'm disagreeing; I've edited nothing except formatting, inserting <br/> elements.

The Dirty Dozen (received as email forward)

1. Shale gas is NOT green. The Village Board tells us shale gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels, and that piping it into the heart of town will reduce our carbon footprint. But shale gas is just another highly polluting hydrocarbon. It's dirtier than oil and dirtier than coal when you add the environmental cost of the huge amounts of (imported) oil needed to explore for it, drill for it, hydrofrack it, process and transport it, then store and/or treat the wastewater. Further, methane, the chief component of shale gas, is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
2. Shale gas is NOT safe. The Village Board tells us shale gas is extremely safe, and that its distribution has an excellent safety record. But Tennessee Gas Pipeline, one of the Texas-based corporations the Board is considering for gas transmission into the Village, is responsible for one of the deadliest gas transmission pipeline explosions in US history. And in Feb 2011, one of TGP's pipelines shot flames 200 feet in the air that were visible for 40 miles. In Nov 2011 two more of TGP's pipelines exploded. This past Jan there was a major leak in a TGP compressor station that caused nearby residents to evacuate.
2a. Shale gas is NOT safe. Methane bonds with naturally occurring radium (R226) in the Marcellus Shale. The gas, along with the radioactivity, will run through the pipelines into the Village. The pipeline itself will be constructed of heavy duty plastic to deter corrosion by the methane. In Germany, plastic pipe is allowing benzene, a proven human carcinogen for which there is no known safe level, and other hydrocarbons, to diffuse through the plastic pipe itself.
3. Shale gas will NOT create local jobs. The Board says this project will employ local residents, but pipeline construction will employ out-of-state workers with special expertise. A portion of their money will flow into the community for rent, food and gasoline, but the bulk of it will benefit their home states, keeping local unemployment high. Dominion Transmission, the second Texas-based corporation the Board is considering for gas transmission into the Village, has a history of importing workers from Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Louisiana to work on local Marcellus Shale projects.
4. The shale gas industry is ABOVE THE LAW. The Village Board tells us shale gas distribution is a highly regulated practice. In fact, the gas industry helped to shape those regulations and is exempt from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Law, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986.
5. The Village of Hamilton may become a gas hub. The Board tells us there will be "4 or 5 city gates" positioned throughout the Village. Gas coming into the Village from a larger pipeline will enter via a "city gate," where pressure is tamped down and the gas then flows through a smaller pipe to users. New York City, with millions of residents has six city gates (NY Times). Why would our Village need four or five of them if it were not intended to be the "hub" for several incoming and outgoing pipelines? In fact, we are surrounded by gas-leased properties (and existing wells) ready to use us as a transmission hub.
6. Many banks REFUSE TO GRANT MORTGAGES for properties with gas leases on them - even for properties adjacent to leased properties. (NY Times) And many insurance companies will not insure leased properties, or else substantially raise their premiums. We are surrounded by such properties. What will you do when you can't get insurance, or when you can't sell your house?
7. Shale gas may NEVER be available to Village residents, small businesses and agricultural users. The Board admits that aside from the Airpark, Community Memorial Hospital, Hamilton Central School and Colgate University, the rest of us will only be connected "as resources allow," perhaps not for 20-30 years. And since the US Geological Survey has slashed its estimate of the amount of gas in the Marcellus Shale by 80%, residents, small businesses and agricultural users may NEVER be connected.
8. Shale gas is probably NOT intended for local use. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to New England. Once we are connected, it's possible to transmit Marcellus Shale gas to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there to Europe and Asia, where the price of gas is four times what we pay. If you were the gas companies, where would you sell the gas?
9. Shale gas has been kept "secret." The Village Board has been planning a Municipal Gas Utility for over two years, but only in Feb of this year notified residents. In addition, the Board has spent $50,000 of taxpayer money to pursue the creation of this utility without voter notification - or consent.
10. Shale gas delays the use of renewable energy sources. While the Village Board agrees there is an "urgent need to explore and develop sustainable energy sources," they propose using shale gas as a "bridge" fuel. According to MIT, this will suppress the market for renewables - by 20 years! By taking the "easy" way out, the Board is neglecting to prepare a landing on the other side of the bridge. Why spend money on a gas delivery infrastructure and retrofitting buildings when they will soon need to be replaced? Why not save money now by using it to fit the Village for renewable energy?
11. Shale gas may NEVER pay off. While the Board says there will be no cost to taxpayers (aside from the $50,000 already spent) because the project will be financed by $2.5 million to $6 million in municipal bonds, where is the benefit? Any proceeds from gas bills paid by the airpark, the hospital, the school and the university will go to pay the bond holders first. How long will it take for the Big Four users to pay up to $6 million in gas bills, in particular, when the university will only retrofit approximately one-third of its buildings for gas?
12. Once we vote to allow the issue to go forward WE HAVE NO FURTHER SAY in the matter. When an Environmental Impact Study, and other studies, are conducted we have to trust the Board to do, what in their judgment, is best for us. Even if these studies have a negative outcome as far as we, the residents, are concerned we will have no say in what happens to us, our environment and our community as a result. And while the Village Board says they're not taking a position on hydrofracking, their actions endorse it. At the last meeting of the Town Board, the Mayor told its members that the Municipal Gas Utility would use hydrofracked gas. When the Town Supervisor asked how a gas utility would benefit Town residents living outside the Village, the Mayor said they'd be connected "as resources allow." If Village residents may have to wait 20-30 years, Town residents will have to wait much longer. There is no benefit for Town residents, and very little, if any, for Village residents. In reality, the creation of a Municipal Gas Utility will benefit, primarily, the transnational gas corporations doing the hydrofracking. If you wonder where all this is leading, please check the Mid-York Weekly for a schedule of free showings of Josh Fox's film "Gasland" at the Hamilton Center for the Arts. And please register to vote ASAP at Town Hall, 16 Broad St. You need to have lived in the Village only 30 days to be eligible. New York is a home rule state. Don't give up that right. You are the Village. You are sovereign. On April 17, just vote "NO!"

Well, I think I sympathize with the motivation here, but I think their facts are wrong. The political material at the end looks rather odd -- I don't believe our local politicians are that easy to buy. (I admit I haven't tried.) Still, there is always a risk of things going wrong; I believe natural gas is less dangerous than propane because it's lighter than air and won't slowly accumulate in your basement, but the explosions they talk about are real. Still, they're  rare -- and I don't think they're random. I think natural gas explosions mostly come from (a) old installations, placed and corroded long before safety was taken as seriously as we take it now, and (b) incompetent installers/maintainers. I think our village utilities people take their jobs and safety training seriously, and I think they're competent. I expect to vote "YES!" -- and maybe save a couple of teachers' jobs, as well as helping attract businesses. Helping some neighbors save money sounds good, too.

Or then again, maybe not. :-)

update: I may have been taking this too seriously; at the meeting, some of these issues were raised but they were dealt with very simply..."five city gates? No, we'll have one gate that steps pressure down to get gas from pipeline into our distribution system, and a few pressure regulators." "Use us as a transmission hub? No, we're putting in low-pressure plastic-only pipe, which physically can't be used as a transmission system -- that requires plastic-coated steel, and compressors, and federal regulation." And so on. And we had Bob McVaugh of the Village planning board expressing enthusiasm about the fact that new developments based on gas heat won't keep raising our electricity rates, which are among the cheapest in the nation but only as long as we keep it down. Natural gas heat is slightly less expensive than electric resistance heating, even here -- my heat is a whole lot cheaper still, but only if I ignore capital cost. (sigh)

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