Renewable energy carries risks, costs

By Sue Suchyta
What is the real cost of renewable energy sources? Are residents ready to weigh the risks of alternative energy to achieve its benefits? Are we ready to tolerate noise, odor or the risk of explosion?

Wyandotte, which generates its own electricity, offers an alternative energy test case. To gain an economic advantage for their customers, city homes and businesses, Wyandotte Municipal Services must fulfill federal requirements and obtain a percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources.

However, renewable energy sources have their own drawbacks.

Geothermal utility drilling already is creating a stink in Wyandotte – literally.

In mid-November an experienced well driller hit an artesian spring while boring a shaft for a geothermal utility installation (which is like a heat pump) in a home being rehabilitated with federal money.

When the sulfur-smelling water was pumped to the surface and followed the gutter to the storm sewer, residents in the 800 block of Lincoln did not appreciate the smell, which was reminiscent of rotten eggs. The odor was caused by naturally occurring minerals in the water, not a man-made pollutant.

The companies involved in the drilling implemented a catch basin and ran a drain hose directly into the storm sewer to keep the sulfur smell at bay within a few days of the stink occurring. Within a week they capped off the artesian spring to prevent the sulfur-smelling water from rising to the surface.

In the long-term future, shafts for geothermal utilities could be coated with a slurry-like mud mix to coat the shaft with a natural cement-like sealant to keep any ground water out of a shaft as it is drilled.

Another renewable energy source that Wyandotte will begin to use in the next year to generate electricity is biomass electrical energy generation.

A simplistic explanation is that biological waste products (organic matter) are superheated in a closed chamber at very high temperatures to create steam, which then is used to generate electricity and heat buildings. The biological materials, or biomass, can be anything organic, such as grass clippings, wood chips, paper, animal fecal waste or even sewage.

While the superheating process is enclosed, one wonders how the smell of the incoming fuel will be contained and how the smell will be kept away from neighborhoods.

City Engineer Mark Kowalewski said at the Dec. 6 City Council meeting that biomass fuel will arrive by rail in plastic containers.

If you’ve ever smelled a bag of wet grass clippings after they’ve been sitting for a while on a hot day, you know how horrible the decomposing plants can smell. It goes without saying that biological animal waste or organic sewage would not smell very good, either, should the odor escape from a storage container before it was superheated to generate electricity.

Decaying organic material also produces methane gas. Methane gas itself is odorless and relatively stable. When methane is mixed with oxygen, it becomes explosive.

If methane gas is present in a port city on an international waterway between the United States and Canada, what protections should the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put in place to protect residents from a terrorist attack?

Theoretically, a lone political fanatic in a small fishing boat could launch a small programmable missile at a biomass facility, which could cause the methane to explode. The resulting fireball could create a devastating loss of life in a population-dense port city on an international waterway.

If a biomass fire spread to nearby industrial areas – like chemical facilities – there is a risk of chemical fires and explosions on a waterway from which we draw our drinking water. The lake-effect breezes can also carry fumes from burning chemicals into the air we breathe.

Wind turbines can turn lake-effect breezes into power. They might make a park or golf course noisy, but they don’t stink. Nor are they explosive.

Elected officials should make sure there are multiple safeguards in place to not only prevent noxious odors, but to protect residents against accidental explosions or deliberate acts of terrorism.

Otherwise the price of renewable energy would be one none of us wants to pay.