Study Baby, Study

My geology professor in college explained that Georgia has the most pristine barrier islands of just about anywhere.  Maybe it’s time to change that.  Here’s a story from Georgia Public Broadcasting about possible new energy exploration off the Georgia Coast:

SAVANNAH, GA — Federal officials want to know just how much oil and natural gas is off Georgia’s coast 

They’re proposing allowing new studies — the first in decades. And it’s fueling familiar arguments.Richard Cobb of the Georgia Petroleum Council told officials at a public hearing in Savannah on Wednesday that developing such resources would make the country more energy-independent.”We feel like we can drill in a safe manner and an environmentally sensitive manner,” Cobb said. “Plus, it would bring jobs and money to Georgia.”But Savannah environmental activist Claudia Collier said, non-renewable energy sources aren’t the answer. “We have at least five areas out there on the shallow shelf that have designated as very promising for wind,” Collier said. “And I just believe that once the East Coast is opened up to oil and gas, they will just take over and wind will go by the wayside.”

I’m pretty receptive to this argument that allowing oil and natural gas drilling would squeeze out a lot of potential for the development of alternative energies.  That’s certainly the case with nuclear energy for a couple of reasons.

First, nuclear plants tend to be so big that they swallow up all the demand, leaving no room to bring on other energy production facilities, like say a new wind farm, when demand peaks.  A wind farm can be brought online pretty readily to follow demand.  When more people are using more electricity and thus increasing demand, a wind farm can be brought online to start producing energy to meet that peak in demand fairly quickly.  Then as demand decreases, say as people start turning out the lights and going to bed, the wind farm can be shut down along with the demand.  Nuclear plants are big and don’t move on a dime, so they are necessarily always producing a large base of energy that doesn’t really follow demand like wind farms can.  Therefore except during the most exceptional peaks, new sources of energy, like wind farms, simply might not have any room to exist.  Who’s going to build a wind farm just to meet those few peaks on the hottest (or maybe coldest) days of the year?  Now, that’s not to say that having a large base of energy is a bad thing, but when that base crowds out innovation and development of new technologies, I think the picture starts looking worse.

Second, nuclear energy tends to suck up most of the federal funds given to support alternative energy.  I haven’t looked at any numbers in a few years, but when I was researching these things in early 2008, I remember coming across numbers for the last couple of years of the 1990s through close to 2008 showing that nuclear energy received around 90% of federal funding for alternative energy.

I wonder how oil and natural gas might crowd out renewable energy sources?  I guess the most obvious way might be that exploration and new drilling sites offshore would just not leave any space for an offshore wind farm to be built.  We don’t want to bump elbows, afterall.

But would more oil and natural gas crowd out wind or even solar the way that nuclear does?  My understanding is that a lot of oil is used as transportation fuel, but I know that plants in New England (and I suppose elsewhere) also use oil to produce electricity.  That might leave less room for renewables to meet demand.  Natural gas is becoming more popular for electricity production, even replacing some old coal-fired power plants.  As far I know, natural gas power plants are supposed to be fairly nimble, able to follow demand more like wind than nuclear, so more natural gas might leave less room for renewables just by being there, but small, adaptable natural gas plants might nevertheless allow for more choreography with renewables that just hasn’t proven feasible with nuclear plants.  Just a bit of a thought experiment.  I don’t know enough of the details to make any real assertions.

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