Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

June 26, 2010

Oil, Gas, Coal, Nuclear, Hydro, Geo, Wind, Solar: Which is Worse?

Category: Big Things – Tom Harrison – 8:12 pm

Please rank the relative cost or trade-off of

  • oil
  • natural gas
  • coal
  • hydro
  • geothermal
  • wind
  • solar

When you rank, consider things like

  • value
  • cost
  • climate
  • benefit
  • alternatives
  • risk
  • economics
  • jobs

What were your criteria? Were they different than they were a few months ago?

Are corporations inherently evil? How about people?

Is mountaintop removal a good way to get coal? Would you pay a little more to get coal other ways?

Have you hear about Gasland? Did you know that natural gas releases about half the CO2 that coal does when burnt. Did you know natural gas prices are falling compared to others?

Does any of this have to do with water (by which I am not just talking about the tap water that is flammable, but really more about the tap water that doesn’t come out of the tap).

Do you remember Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Do you think we’ll figure out a way to get rid of spent fuel?

Isn’t it bad to flood massive valleys to create hydro power?

Are we concerned about bird deaths from wind? Or what about the idea that putting up lots of wind towers will interfere with wind (Don’t laugh). How about the visual destruction of the landscape?

Isn’t solar a little silly, since it only works on clear days?

Don’t electric cars use batteries that create massive environmental destruction?

How concerned are you about the impacts of climate change? Do you think some of the weird weather and stuff is just normal weirdness? Do you think we’ll find ways to sequester CO2? Will it do any good?

Do you believe in Peak Oil? (or Gas? Coal?). How does that play into things.

Can we resolve any issues that might arise without significant conflict?

What would happen to you tomorrow if the power went out for the day. (In case anyone reads this later, it’s June 26th, 2010)?
How about a few days?

Did you ever watch Mad Max?

These are just a few questions. I think we probably need to be thinking about them. Because there’s really no single good answer.

I don’t have any answers at the moment, but these are some good questions, if you ask me.


  1. Hi Tom,

    those are good questions alright.

    Regarding nuclear, we already know what to do about the waste, and have done for a long time. It’s only politics that prevents it from happening, and that politics is misguided.

    Chernobyl is now a tourist attraction. Yes, it was bad, but really, nothing like as bad as people would like us to believe. And that from a reactor that didn’t have a containment vessel. TMI did, which is why nobody got affected in the slightest.

    Comment by Tony Wildish — June 27, 2010 @ 6:10 am

  2. Tom, a few years ago I read an article detailing the size in years of the supplies of oil, coal and other sources of energy. i read that the known supply of uranium was small and wouldn’t take us far in the the future if we began to use it to replace other forms of energy. Do you have any information about the the estimated supply of uranium? I’ve be searching periodically for this info for a couple years.

    Comment by Paul Lambert — July 9, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  3. That’s interesting, Paul — I haven’t heard anything. I do think it’s possible that analysis like this can tend to lead to “all or nothing” outcomes. I don’t think anyone is proposing that we replace all current power with nuclear, only that it becomes an alternative we consider as we move away from burning coal, in particular.

    Tony Wildish, who has the first comment on this thread seems to know a good deal more than I about the topic — perhaps you could contact him (his blog is linked) to see if he has good sources.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — July 9, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Hi Tom, Paul,

    I have a few links that might help. Charles Barton, over at Nuclear Green, has two posts on uranium resources that are well worth reading: Will we run out of Uranium? and The Cost of Recovering Uranium from Seawater.

    Brave New Climate, by Barry Brook, is another great resource for finding out about nuclear power. He has several posts that go into detailed modelling of many aspects of energy-systems of all sorts, renewables, fossil-fuels, and nuclear. Look for the ‘Sustainable Nuclear’ tab at the top, or just dive in anywhere.

    In short, uranium is ubiquitous in the earth’s crust, not localised like fossil fuels. It’s only a question of how financially viable it is to extract it from various places, given that the density fluctuates. Even at the lower densities, the energy required to extract uranium is small compared to the value of the energy it represents. So if demand rises sufficiently, it will become viable to extract it practically anywhere.

    It’s not like oil or gas where you have to go to ever-increasing lengths to find it, you can just dig up granite or other rocks and there it is. It could even be extracted as a by-product of mining for other minerals, such as phosphates.

    So no, we’re not going to run out of uranium for several hundred thousand years, at the very least.

    Comment by Tony Wildish — July 10, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  5. Thanks, Tony! I figured you might have some insight on this topic.

    I have supported nuclear power for different reasons. It is not without issues, but has some rather important qualities that make it a highly attractive alternative source of energy.

    After the BP spill, my first thought was that as people we tend to underestimate risk — so the BP spill goes to show that something bad could happen with nukes. But after some thought, I suspect we under-estimate risk until something bad happens, and then probably over-estimate it.

    So perhaps, the BP spill is yet another reason to move forward with nuclear — whereas we seem to have thought oil (and gas and coal) are safe and benign, the media is (finally) talking about the downsides … and with climate change being only a peripheral issue. I think it’s fair to say that the risks of nuclear are understood well, and thus probably can be managed with sufficient skill and oversight — two factors apparently not present in our current futile fossil fuel quest. Nuclear power plants with containment domes have been safe so far (which includes Three Mile Island, and does not include Chernobyl).

    Still, one would hope that we move towards more benign methods of harnessing (and storing) energy over the long term. A push towards renewables, combined with a push towards obvious and simple efficiency improvements in our current energy consumption could get us there faster. But in the interim, we can make progress by shifting from coal to gas and coal to nuclear.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — July 13, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  6. I’m glad someone other than me is keeping tabs on this stuff!

    Comment by Thomas Retterbush — June 1, 2011 @ 6:10 am

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