Global Warming or Not, Methane Is A Bad Plan

Last year at the end of January, spring was already beginning to be felt in my little corner of the world and I was writing about my spring flowers.

This year the scene is quite different.

As I sit and write this column, we are hunkering down for a storm of nearly epic proportions for my part of the world: six inches of snow (15 centimeters for those of you with a metric bent).

That storm will start with several hours of freezing rain, then sleet, then snow—and will be accompanied by some pretty impressive winds.

Any small mis-prediction of the progression of precipitation and temperature by the weather forecasters and it could get even uglier very quickly.

This combination of rain, sleet, and snow is extremely dangerous, even by more northern standards.

Thick ice coating electricity lines and trees and whipping winds is a recipe for wide-spread power outages.

The hours of freezing rain mean that the local road crews can’t put salt, sand, or anything else on the roads as everything will simply wash off before the pavement freezes solid.

Many of our roads in this part of the world have fairly high crowns and deep ditches to help channel water during hurricanes and tropical storms.

That means when they freeze and then get snow, motorists brave enough, desperate enough, or just stupid enough to go out, run a high risk of sliding off the road and into the ditch.

I grew up in Iowa, where terrible blizzards and dangerous winter driving was a fact of life, but we learned how to drive in the stuff and when to stay home.

Our homes mostly had methane heat and additional wood burning fireplaces were as much a safety feature in the case of winter power outages as anything else.

Here, though, in coastal North Carolina, people don’t expect such conditions. Houses have electric heat pumps but, frequently, no fireplaces.

I don’t have access to methane—no pipeline in my neighborhood—but we do have two 20-pound propane tanks and a camping stove for cooking if the electricity goes out.

This winter has brought some extreme weather to a wide swath of the United States. The Midwest has endured cold more extreme than it’s seen in decades.

My brother and sister-in-law in Minneapolis are scraping huge piles of snow off the roof to prevent ice dams from damaging their home.

I was in Ames for the first week of classes at Iowa State earlier this month and enjoyed single digits, whipping snow, and slick sidewalks, all the while being told that “I should have been there a week earlier when it was minus 20.”

Watching the news reports from around the country, I see that propane and methane prices are skyrocketing in the face of these extreme weather conditions.

Even coal fired electricity generation is struggling to manage the extreme weather. Those mountains of coal freeze into giant lumps that are impossible to move into the system to be crushed and burned.

Whether you believe these weather events were caused by global warming, or prove that global warming isn’t happening, the sheer impact on our electricity supply cannot be ignored.

Nuclear electricity has continued to hum along, providing clean, reliable, and consistently priced electricity no matter WHAT the weather is doing outside.

Hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or not, sunny, cloudy, or dark— nuclear energy continues to power our homes, our businesses, and our factories.

We need to remind EVERYONE just how well nuclear has performed for this country.

Nuclear plants are fueled for 1.5 to 2 years, and utilities can easily hold enough inventory for another fuel reload.

The U3O8, UF6 and LEU turned into that fuel is stored in containers in warehouses with no risk of damage from weather.

The only affect extreme cold has is to increase the relative efficiency by lowering the temperature of the ultimate heat sink.

Investing in building more nuclear plants, creating new designs, and finding more ways to use this technology in delivering energy to our homes, schools, businesses, and factories is one of the best things we can do as a country—especially today, when extreme weather events are increasingly disrupting the economy and wreaking havoc on everyday life.

Let’s stop closing plants, and find ways to expand them instead.

This article was originally published in Fuel Cycle Week #554, 1.30.14. where Margaret is a regular columnist. To become a subscriber, go to fuelcycleweek.com or contact the publication at info@fuelcycleweek.com.