U.S. and China Alternative Energy Breakdown

27 10 2009

With global warming leaving us within a couple degrees of a global crisis, world leaders are looking to cleaner, renewable energy resources to save the planet. And, as the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters, the U.S. and China will be sharing the spotlight. Here are five energy options both countries have on the table: how they operate, their ups and downs, and how well the two giant energy economies are tapping into them.

wind energy


Wind Energy

How it works:
Tall, imposing wind turbines stir into motion whenever a strong enough wind blows past them. Most turbines resemble thin windmills that can rise to the height of 20-story buildings with three 200-foot long blades, but some have a more egg-beater like structure. When the blades start moving, they turn the drive shaft inside, which then turns the electric generator and produces electricity.

Pros: They use a renewable resource, they don’t pollute, and they’re relatively inexpensive to maintain.

Cons: They only work when the wind is blowing faster than 8 miles per hour, and they don’t work during high storms with winds above 55 miles per hour. The cost to install them – with building permits, public notifications and hearings – can amount to several thousand dollars each, plus licensing agreements to build them in places such as a farmer’s land. And while they are less expensive than solar energy generation, they’re still more costly than nuclear energy and natural gas. Nearby residents sometimes complain of the noise and scenery obstruction as well. They can also pose a threat to avian life, but the number of birds killed every year by wind turbines is much smaller than the number killed by crashing into windshields.

In China: China is the world’s fourth largest generator of wind power, behind the U.S., Germany and Spain. It is also the most rapidly growing renewable energy in that nation. But the country relies on lower-quality turbines, some of which are only 20-30 percent as efficient as foreign ones.

In the United States: Wind power generated just over 1 percent of the electricity in the U.S. in 2008, and the amount nearly doubled between 2006 and 2008. Technological improvements are starting to lower the cost. Tax breaks and green pricing programs that allow consumers to pay utilities for more alternative energies are also spurring growth. A 2008 report from the Emerging Energy Research Group predicted the U.S. could fuel 10 percent of its energy from wind by 2020, and the Department of Energy thinks the country can raise it to 20 percent by 2030.

solar energy


Solar Energy

How it works: Two main forms of solar technology dominate the market. The most popular are photovoltaic devices, or “solar cells,” often seen in panels on the roofs of houses. These convert sunlight to electricity directly. Larger solar power plants use the sun to heat water and produce steam, which then powers the electricity generator.

Pros: The sun is a renewable resource, and the process releases very little pollution.

Cons: Like wind, solar energy technology is cheap to maintain but expensive install. This means that once installation costs are taken into account, photovoltaic systems can cost $0.35 per kilowatt hour – more than three times what conventional power sources cost. They can release some toxic emissions during their production. They don’t work very well in heavily polluted areas, and concentrated solar beams from power plants can also endanger animals that fly right through them.

In China: Mainland China produces 30 percent of the world’s solar panels. The country also manufactures half of the world’s solar water heaters and owns almost two-thirds of them. But the global recession hurt the photovoltaic industry, which exports 98 percent of its products.

In the United States: California dominates the solar industry in the U.S., with two-thirds of the country’s solar capacity concentrated in that state. A report from last year projected that solar power could provide more than 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2025 – which would be quite a feat, considering that right now the figure is less than 1 percent. But given the industry’s growth rate (roughly 40 percent a year), it could happen.

nuclear energy


Nuclear Energy

How it works: Nuclear energy comes from splitting the nuclei of large, radioactive atoms, usually uranium. The heat released during the process generates steam to operate conventional power plants that produce electricity. The steam then cools into water to be used again.

Pros: It’s efficient. A uranium pellet the size of a fingertip can produce about as much energy as 150 gallons of oil. It doesn’t produce carbon dioxide. And unlike wind and solar energy, it won’t vary with time, place or weather.

Cons: Fission releases a lot of radiation, requiring nuclear power plants to have rigorous and redundant containment capacity. And no one has settled on a permanent disposal site for the radioactive spent fuel rods. Nor does the U.S. have a recycling facility to remove and reuse the nuclear fuel left in the rods. Researchers are trying to develop the much safer fusion process (which forces nuclei together instead of ripping them apart). But this requires a great deal of energy, and so far humans have not been able to make it into a reality. Furthermore, uranium is common enough, but the uranium needed for this energy – Uranium-235 – is not. It’s also nonrenewable.

In China: Nuclear energy accounts for a mere fraction of a percent of the nation’s total energy. But nuclear reactor projects are popping up all over the country, with eight scheduled to start in 2009 and 16 other regions and municipalities planning their own by 2015, according to the World Nuclear Association. But officials worried about safety are urging the country to proceed more slowly.

In the United States: Generating 30 percent of the planet’s nuclear-generated electricity, the U.S. is the largest nuclear power producer in the world. The country has 104 nuclear reactors that accounted for almost 20 percent of its electricity in 2008, according to the World Nuclear Association, and last June Congress revealed a plan to build 100 more – a plan that could cost $700 billion.

coal energy


Clean(er) Coal

How it works: Properly termed “carbon-capture sequestration.” It does not stop coal from emitting carbon dioxide. It just tries to capture and bury it before it can enter the atmosphere. Companies use two main methods for capture. The first, called “integrated gasification combined-cycle” involves burning the coal into a gaseous mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The gas then powers the machinery that generates electricity. The second method – oxyfuel combustion – burns the coal in oxygen instead of air, producing a gas of mostly carbon dioxide. The resulting fluid is pumped underground for storage.

Pros: Coal is cheap, and we don’t have to go the Middle East to get it – although we do use techniques such as strip mining that destroy the landscape.

Cons: Cleaning it is still too expensive to be competitive. According to a recent Harvard study, capturing 90 percent of coal’s carbon emissions could double the cost of electricity in kilowatt-hours for the first generation of clean coal plants. Burial could also pose a safety hazard if the carbon dioxide leaks up from the ground.

In China: China is working to reduce coal emissions much more quickly than the U.S. In the last two years, it rose as the global leader in building cleaner, more efficient coal-powered plants. But as the world’s largest coal producer (it relies on the resource for about 80 percent of its electricity), it needs to.

In the United States: The Obama administration decided in June to revive FutureGen, a Department of Energy project to build a clean coal plant in Illinois with near-zero emissions. The Bush administration launched the project in 2003 but abandoned it in 2008 when estimated costs skyrocketed to $1.8 billion. Current estimates are at $1.5 billion, with the Department of Energy contributing about $1 billion.

geothermal energy

Thomas Ormston/FLICKR

Geothermal Energy

How it works: Geothermal reservoirs form wherever hot magma from beneath the Earth’s crust rises high enough to heat groundwater. Geothermal power plants drill wells 1 to 2 miles deep and pipe the hot water or steam directly to the surface to generate electricity. Geothermal heat pumps take advantage of the relatively constant temperature of the earth a few feet below the surface (roughly 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit) to heat buildings in winter and cool them in summer.

Pros: Low emissions. Most geothermal power plants emit very small amounts of carbon dioxide (less than one percent of what a traditional coal power plant emits), and binary geothermal plants emit essentially zero. Geothermal energy is renewable, it can run 24/7, it requires very little land and we don’t have to import it.

Cons: It’s somewhat limited by location, especially where power plants are concerned. Many geothermal features in the U.S., such as geysers, are in national parks and cannot be disturbed. Installation costs for geothermal heating systems are still higher than for conventional systems, although operating costs are lower.

In China: Geothermal heat pump sales in China are growing rapidly and could amount to a $1.1 billion dollar market by 2010. But the high installation costs still turn off more than a few real estate developers.

In the United States: The U.S. produces more geothermal energy than any other nation in the world, but it still accounts for less than half a percent of all the electricity produced in the country.




One response

1 05 2010
U.S. and China Alternative Energy Breakdown « Red is Green | Wind And Solar

[…] U.S. and China Alternative Energy Breakdown « Red is Green Share and […]

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