What Are Fossil Fuels?What Are Renewables?


What Are Fossil Fuels?

What Are Renewables?

By MIKE ZAGATA • for Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal

Based upon what I read in our papers, there seems to be a lack of information and/or understanding about fossil fuels and the so-called “renewables.”  This might be a good time to attempt to get all of us on the same page.

The descriptive term “fossil fuels” includes coal, oil and natural gas – the energy sources that were formed millions of years ago as sedimentary deposits in lakes and oceans.  They represent plant and animal material that settled to the bottom of those water bodies and were, over millions of years, subjected to pressure.  As a result, they were transformed into coal (hard coal or anthracite and soft coal or bituminous), oil and natural gas.  Because they took millions of years to form, they are considered to be non-renewable – some day we will run out of them.

• COAL is a solid form of carbon and often contains “contaminants” that would result in pollution when the coal is burned to release its stored energy if it weren’t for environmental laws and regulations that require coal-burning power plants to install expensive pollution-abatement equipment.

Because it is a solid, coal is mined – either in surface mines near the earth’s surface or in deep mines well below the earth’s surface – and then transported by truck or train to coal-burning power plants.

It contains “stored” energy that can be burned to heat our homes and to generate electricity that is transported across the “grid.”  It is either used to power equipment, re-charge electric vehicles, heat buildings, manufacture products or is eventually “lost”/wasted.

• OIL is a liquid form of carbon and can be used as a lubricant, in the manufacture of plastics, tires and countless other products.  It can also be refined into gasoline to fuel our cars and lawnmowers, diesel to fuel trucks and heating oil which is burned to heat our homes and buildings by releasing stored energy.

Oil generally has fewer “contaminants” than coal and thus burns cleaner.  It requires energy to transport fossil fuels from where they were produced (coal is mined, oil and gas require wells to be drilled) to where their stored energy is ultimately used by a consumer.

• NATURAL GAS represents the gaseous phase of a fossil fuel (contains carbon) and is generally transported via pipeline from where it is produced to where it will be stored and/or consumed.  It can be used as a feedstock in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and other products or it can be burned to release its stored energy to cook, heat our homes or generate electricity.

The important part that often gets overlooked is that fossil fuels consist of stored energy.  That means they can be relied upon 24 hours a day and 365 days a year to meet our energy needs when and where we need them.

That is an extremely important point.  They only release their energy to meet a specific demand when called upon by one of us to do so, i.e. when we turn on the stove burner.

That stored energy is not “wasted” in the meantime.  When fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity, some of their energy is lost during their conversion from “stored” energy to electricity and more of it is lost due to the energy required to move that electricity across the grid.  The loss that represents the energy it takes to move the electricity across the grid is called “line drop.”

• RENEWABLES consist of energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro.  They do not represent a form of stored energy like fossil fuels and thus don’t release a “stored” form of energy on demand.  The energy they produce needs to be used or sent into the grid immediately, as there is no existing way to store it at a scale large enough to meet our ravenous appetite for energy.

Current storage technology involves lithium-ion batteries and the raw materials needed to make them are mined outside the U.S.

Is it a good national strategy to put the control of our energy in the hands of foreign governments?  Remember what OPEC did to us in 1974 – a time when people shot one another while waiting in line to fill their automobile with gasoline.

Renewables are generally used to create another form of energy that is in a form we can transport and use.  That form of energy is electricity.

Solar panels convert solar energy into electricity.  Wind mills convert wind energy into electricity, and hydropower converts the energy from moving water into electricity.

It takes energy to create electricity and thus energy is lost in the process.  It also takes energy to move the electricity (line drop) from where it is created to where it will ultimately be “used” to heat your home, charge your electric car or power your electric lawn mower.

Creating and moving electricity via renewables is an inefficient process and one that produces heat.  It also takes time to move the energy from where it is being created to where the demand for it is located.  That’s why we have a “grid” consisting of sub-stations and transmission lines.  They are constantly “moving” electricity across the grid.

However, there are times when the demand for that electricity is low and much of it is “wasted” due to line drop, and there are times when the demand is very high, and the system may not be able to move enough electricity fast enough to meet that demand.  When that happens, we get a “rolling brown-out” or a “blackout.”

Solar energy is produced by the sun.  Therefore, at a minimum, it is not produced at night.  In upstate New York we get about 160 sunny days per year.  Even though some solar energy is produced on cloudy days, it is not a reliable energy source in and of itself.  To date, we don not have a way of storing the solar energy produced during daylight hours for use at night.

Wind energy is produced when the wind blows.  It has the same shortcomings as solar.

Hydro-power represents energy captured by using running water to spin turbines that generate electricity.  During periods of normal or above water flow, it is a reliable source of electrical energy and can normally be brought on-line quickly.  The problem with hydro-power is that historically it used the water stored behind dams – think of the Goodyear Lake dam – to power the turbines that produce the electricity.  The State and federal relicensing processes required for existing dams may take decades to complete while getting approval for a new dam is simply out of the question. In addition, the source of the hydro-power (dam) may not be close to where the demand for electricity exists and thus energy will be wasted while getting the electricity to where it is needed (function of the “grid”),

Aside from what we all would like to do with regards to our energy sources, the reality is this:  If it’s below zero and you want to keep your pipes from freezing right now, fossil fuels will provide the energy when and where you need it.  Hopefully the day will come when that is not the case and renewables will play a more reliable, significant role.

Mike Zagata, former DEC commissioner in the Pataki Administration and environmental executive for Fortune 500 companies, lives in West Davenport.

One thought on “What Are Fossil Fuels?What Are Renewables?

  1. Tracy Lamanec

    I came across this column by accident and want to complement Mike on a good job. There are a few things I would like to add. The most reliable source of electricity that doesn’t contribute greenhouse gas is nuclear and Mike was careful not to mention it. Fossil fuels give up their stored energy primarily by the oxidation of carbon and hydrogen to form carbon dioxide and water. The ratio of hydrogen to carbon is much greater in gas than in coal, with oil being in between. That’s why fracking which has lowered the price of gas has led to less carbon emissions.
    Carbon dioxide is a powerful greenhouse gas. There is another gas that is about half as effective at absorbing infrared radiation as CO2 but is thousands of times more abundant and that is water. A fact that is overlooked by global warming alarmists. It is water vapor in the air, not CO2 that determines our weather. The contribution of carbon may be real but is very minimal to what extent and at what cost human activity or politicians can change that is not resolved science.
    Another source of energy that is mostly overlooked but the primary source for thousands of years for our ancestors is what we now call biomass. It is considered renewable because it is continually being remade by photosynthesis, taking CO2 (carbon sequestration) and water out of the air. We grow corn for grain to make ethanol to add to our gasoline. There are environmental costs and transportation costs. Flooded railroad tracks in Iowa can be seen in recent increases in price at the pump. Modern technology, if applied to the use of waste organic material, agricultural and forestry products will lead to better forest health by creating a market for less desirable and invasive vegetation along with potential fuel for devastating wild fires.

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