The recent West Virginia coal mine disaster set me to thinking about the general safety of coal mining and burning coal to produce energy. I found an excellent discussion of the relative safety of coal derived and nuclear reactor energy production (1). Basically, both uranium mining and nuclear reactor operation are far safer than coal mining and burning coal to produce electricity. The entire article looks at the matter using probabilistic risk assessment which is dry reading to some, but the only way to look at the topic.
Thinking about green energy production brings to mind harnessing the wind, converting the sun’s energy to electricity, utilizing the wave action of the ocean and perhaps other sources like heating at geothermal vents. To date the conversation has not been about safety, rather it has been about developing working reliable technology. The technological hurdles have not so much been at the point of production, but in storing the energy. The use of super batteries and grid sharing are some of the suggested approaches.
Most of the approaches have looked, primarily, at production at some centralized point with distribution in a grid. This, no doubt, is because we are used to utility companies being in charge of production and distribution, but an alternative approach is production locally with distribution over a large grid. One of the advantages of this co-operative approach is that production over a large area dampens the effect of the unpredictability of nature. For example, a windmill farm in Kansas might have periods of intense wind with more energy production than the grid needed followed by periods of calm during which electricity would have to be produced by an alternative energy source or borrowed from another grid.
By contrast widespread community or home windmills would allow production in Virginia, or Florida, or Texas when the Kansas prairie was in the doldrums.
But what about safety? Avoiding danger to the environment has been a driving force for the green energy proponents. Windmills of the large type seen in wind energy production apparently cause large numbers of bird casualties. What, if any, risks are associated with solar energy production? Are there materials needed in the production of windmills or solar panels that are not available domestically? Could we develop a dependence on some material from a third world country that does not like the U.S. or has an unstable government?
Coal, nasty as it is, is abundant domestically, has a developed technology, and a work force that is capable and stable mining and distributing it to electric energy plants. What effect would a switch to alternative energy sources have on a relatively uneducated and immobile coal mining work force?
Where are these conversations taking place?