Thursday, January 27, 2011

Energy in the West

My drive home through Wyoming was long, cold, and oddly interesting. Yes, it is rather flat, and has long stretches without much of note to break the never ending view of sagebrush. But often what is out there is what's fueling our nation...
Sinclair is a small town on I-80, home and origin of the Sinclair oil company (yaknow, the green dinosaurs?) It has a large oil refinery, "company" housing for the workers there, and a gas station. There you can buy unleaded fresh from the pipes and without added ethanol (with no large urban centers in the state there are no rules about ethanol to reduce smog) which gets 3-5% higher MPG. This refinery is fueling most of the cars which drive by as the gas is trucked and piped all over the state and the west.

Then there is coal, along I-80 there is a stretch of open coal mining, where thick seams sit right below the surface. A huge dredge crane scrapes up piles of the stuff. With it's remote location, and the less than stellar quality of the coal it is not trucked nor trained off to big city plants. A plant near Rock Springs burns it and high tension lines transport it to the grids of Utah and Idaho. Electricity is much lighter to move than coal after all. Wyoming accounts for almost %40 of the nations coal production, and coal is still the major source of electricity for Americans.

The other big source is Natural gas. Now in many places natural gas production is simply part of oil drilling, but our demand has exceeded those easy supplies and so we have turned to coal seams and fractured underground rock layers. The geology of the state is actually fascinating, and makes for the importance of fossil fuels here. Sadly however, as the BLM has been offering up leases in areas that were formerly wild, they have relaxed rules on environmental impacts and the clean up of sites. Many areas that are important game and stock range and being crisscrossed with dirt roads large enough for heavy equipment and ponds of contaminated liquids related to drilling and pumping. The burning of natural gas is relatively quite clean, but with lax regulation the drilling has not been.

And a sight that brings me great joy! Ridges dotted with lines of wind generators spinning wildly in the almost constant wind. The power from these joins the I-25 corridor grid, and when you buy "renewable credits" you are funding the utilities investments in wind and solar farms. These are not without any impact on the area, a road must be built to construct the pylons, but after they're running they need only occasional maintenance. There has been concerns about birds, but the small number who are broadsided by a spinning blade is comparable to number who drown in contaminated ponds related to oil and gas drilling, or suffer the effects of pollution. Around the base of these wild animals and stock graze unmolested, and many are built on private land offering an important source of income to farmers and ranchers.
The future of energy in this country can be seen in a trip across the windy state of Wyoming, it will be a mix of sources, and work must be done to see that they get always cleaner and more responsible!

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