By Don C. Brunell
For decades, radio newsman Paul Harvey gave us a side of the news that we either hadn’t heard or hadn’t considered. His “Rest of the Story” commentaries provided an in-depth look at the news behind the headlines.
Today, all the headlines are about the negative impacts of fossil fuels. But when you dig deeper, as Paul Harvey did, you get the rest of the story.
For thousands of years, food, water, clothing and shelter were the basic necessities of life. Today, we need to include electricity.
In China and India, home to more than a third of the world’s 7.25 billion people, 85,000 people move into cities each day. They are moving from areas without modern conveniences into urban housing where refrigerators, freezers, washers and dryers, computers and internet are part of everyday life.
Electricity is also essential for clean water, as governments around the world invest in water sanitation and waste water treatment plants. The need is to build new treatment plants for the 2.5 billion people who still lack safe drinking water.
While some complain about fossil fuels, almost three billion people still use primitive stoves to burn wood or dried animal dung for cooking. The resulting indoor air pollution kills 3.5 million people a year – mainly women and children – from respiratory illnesses. In fact, each year people burning wood and charcoal in Africa contribute to the destruction of forests equal to the size of Switzerland.
Meanwhile, the next generation of fossil fuel combustion technology is cleaning up our air and water, while producing useful by-products, such as green wallboard.
China, often reviled as the poster child for smog and pollution, has developed a project called GreenGen, the world’s largest near-zero emissions coal plant. It generates 265 megawatts of electricity-enough to power over 200,000 homes – from gasified coal, and the resulting CO2 is injected into a nearby oil field rather than released into the atmosphere.
The reality is the use of coal to produce electricity has nearly doubled in America since 1970 as our economy (GDP) as more than doubled. During that same period, key emissions per kilowatt hour have decreased by 90 percent.
Many people who enjoy ample electricity have developed strong biases against fossil fuels and want to stop any research into clean fossil fuel technology. But that technology is allowing us to grow and create jobs while actually cleaning up our global environment.
Americans don’t stop to ask what life would be like without an adequate power supply. We are so accustomed to flipping on a switch for light, powering up our computers and adjusting our thermostats for heat and air conditioning that it is a reality jolt when the electric grid goes down for just a couple of days.
Our abundant low-cost hydropower has been the staple of our state’s economy. Electricity is essential for the production of the aluminum used in Boeing aircraft, growing silicon wafers for computer chips, and sustaining agriculture, our state’s largest industry. But most of the world is not blessed with our Columbia River hydropower system and must rely on fossil fuels.
Even with energy-efficient appliances and advances in building construction, we will use more electricity in the future – including the electricity we use to recharge our electric cars. Those 150,000 electric cars people bought last year need power from the electric grid to recharge their batteries and often that electricity comes from fossil fuel generating plants.
The good news is we can meet that demand through innovation and technology, if we have the will do so. As Paul Harvey would say: “Now you know the rest of the story.”
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, columnist and former president of the Association of Washington Business.