Ed Quillen on Maximum Trashing Utilization: Colorado Voices I

For those of you who don’t read the Denver Post or High Country News, you might not be familiar with the unique voice of Ed Quillen. I don’t always agree with the guy, but I find this curmudgeonly Salida resident to be a true Interior West voice and always worth a read. Here he is on a new concept for land use (this is related to the F.S. because of the coal mine, which is currently in (guess what?) litigation). In our next post we will hear another Colorado voice on coal mining in the same area. I think it’s interesting to contrast the perspectives.

Below is most of the op-ed; the rest can be found here.

The West could become a greener place with the help of a policy I call Maximum Trashing Utilization, or MTU. Its fundamental concept is simple: Get the maximum benefit from every disturbance of the environment. If that requires changes in regulations, or perhaps some economic adjustments, let’s just do it. The more benefit we get from “trashing,” the less trashing we’ll need to do.

Consider the vast networks of diversions, reservoirs, canals and ditches we have built to irrigate crops here in the Great American Desert. By and large, the water moves by gravity. And as everyone who has ever seen a water wheel knows, water in motion can be a source of useful energy, for anything from a gristmill to electrical generation.

With those irrigation works, we’ve already damaged the environment by removing water from its natural course. So why not get the maximum benefit by generating electricity at every irrigation reservoir and ditch drop?

There are some roadblocks, though. A state-granted right to divert water doesn’t necessarily include the legal right to run it through a turbine in the process. Hydro projects, no matter how small, must be licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and that can be a long and expensive process, not worth the trouble for the small low-head generating units that would work with irrigation systems.

Furthermore, the power generally needs to go somewhere beyond the irrigation system, which may require building new power lines — and those are often sources of contention and yet more reviews and hearings.

The upshot of all this is “regulatory uncertainty,” which leads to a reluctance to invest even as new technologies are developed for low-head (less than 16 feet of fall) hydro and in-stream generation that hardly affect stream flow.

Now, I realize that we need some regulation; environmental protection is important. But our regulatory system also ought to encourage getting the maximum possible benefit — i.e., relatively clean energy — from the damage that’s already being done. And if making it economically feasible requires subsidies in some instances, well, why not? It’s not as though other energy sources, from crude oil to solar, don’t get subsidies.

Another way to achieve Maximum Trashing Utilization is known as cogeneration. Basically, it means generating electricity with a thermal plant, and putting the waste heat to use.

One of my brothers designs and installs cogeneration units for commercial laundries. A stationary automotive engine is modified to run on natural gas instead of gasoline. It turns a generator to help power the laundry’s machinery. The hot exhaust from the engine replaces the burner on a conventional large water heater, whose intake water has been preheated in the process of cooling the engine.

The result is a lower overall energy bill for the laundry, and more use of the energy from the natural gas.

What’s not to like about it? Well, when my brother added onto his house and wanted to heat it with a small cogeneration unit, he hit all sorts of regulatory barriers, from the city building code and various zoning laws to the municipal utility company’s strenuous efforts not to buy any surplus power he generated. After two years of fighting, he gave up.

There has been some progress on the regulatory front. Back in 2008, High Country News carried a story about methane escaping from Western coal mines. Methane is a flammable gas (it and its close chemical relative ethane are the major components of natural gas) that is given off by coal as it decomposes underground.

Since methane is flammable and sometimes explosive, mine safety requires venting it away from the working area.

Logically, this methane should be burned in a productive way. Unburned methane is more than 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as the carbon dioxide produced by combustion. Plus, there’s the energy from burning it, which could be used to heat homes or generate electricity.

But certain regulatory policies for coal mines on federal land prevented the methane from being put to public use. Essentially, the mining companies had the right to use the coal, but not the methane. For safety reasons, they have to vent it — but they couldn’t put it to work.

That’s changed recently, at least on a case-by-case basis. The Interior Department now allows the capture and sale of methane. But is it economical to do so when the methane is diffuse and the nearest pipeline might lie miles away?

“We’ve tried to look at it every way in the world. If it were economic to do, we would already be doing it. It would add to our income.” That’s what James Cooper, president of Oxbow Mining, which operates the Elk Creek Mine in western Colorado, told a Grand Junction business journal.

Cap-and-trade legislation might change the economics by paying the coal company to capture methane. It’s unlikely to be enacted in the current political climate, but again, if some subsidies are required to get MTU, there are certainly worse ways to spend public money.

Note from Sharon: It would be simpler, and more likely to succeed, in my opinion, to write surgical legislation that would treat the methane from underground coal mines (or at least ones on federal land) as a pollutant and require capture; Mark Squillace, Director of the Natural Resources Law Program at University of Colorado attempted to do this last year. A more productive way of making useful policy than litigating on the NEPA, without running up bills for government and NGO attorneys. In my opinion.

Leave a Comment