Tag Archives: energy

The Hazards of Methane and Coal Processing

See the flame? That’s gas flaring at an oil refinery.

Methane emissions and coal mining have received attention from the current Federal government administration. You can read about the regulations and policy here, here, or here. Instead of rehashing all of that, I want to take a look at the hazardous properties of these chemicals. Let’s get a little hazmat’ish today and address the hazards of methane and coal processing chemicals.

First, I breakdown the health and environmental impacts of methane. Methane emissions can be part of the gas flaring at oil and gas production sites. Then I look at a few of the chemicals involved in coal processing. They are the unsaid, and often unknown, part of “clean coal.” Continue reading

Top 5 Worst Things You Do To the Environment

wyoming coal rail car

Coal on its way to be burned to power and cool your home and office.

What are the worst things you do for the environment? I’m not referring to deliberately dumping oils or toxins, or hunting the last of a species. I’m referring to those activities that you may take for granted. These are actions you take due to a combination of choice, comfort, convenience, and necessity, such as heating your home with fossil fuels. Even though I work in the environmental field, there are several day-to-day actions I take that I know are not environmentally friendly. So this post was both for me and you.

Below I identify the five worst things I do to the environment, plus five more that you might do. There is one action you can take, or may have taken, that is beginning to stand above the rest for its potential negative impact on the environment. That is to vote for and/or support an elected official who opposes environmental protection.

The top five worst things I do to the environment. I discuss the impact of each below.

Continue reading

Coal, Gas, Methane, and a Local Economy

Dave Johnston Power Plant in Glenrock, WY

Dave Johnston Power Plant in Glenrock, WY with wind turbines in the distance.

Casper, Wyoming is an energy resource-driven town and people are worried about their local economy. I was in town for work and felt the shadow of a down energy economy hovering over the town. Even though I wasn’t in town for energy-related work people wanted to bend the ear of the “environmental guy”. The topics included jobs lost due to a slow natural gas market, cutting coal mine jobs, and the impact of the new methane regulations. Continue reading

Non-Energy Environmental Professional

The energy environment is hard to miss in western Colorado.

The energy environment is hard to miss in western Colorado.

Energy, climate, sustainability. I’m an environmental professional who doesn’t work in the any of these fields. I feel a bit left out that I don’t work in the “sexy” areas of the environmental field. These are the big picture environmental issues that make headlines, can influence politics, and flood my Twitter feed.

Professionals in the energy field are solving important world problems, both in renewables (solar, wind, etc.) and fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal). New climate science is breaking daily and each study seems to be a step in the right direction. Sustainability was a buzzword 15 years ago. Now it’s a critical part of any business, filled with activism, advancing technologies, and solutions. Continue reading

Do You Know Where Your Energy Comes From?

Evansville Wyoming wind oil refinery

Wind turbines, coal rail car, and an oil refinery in Casper, WY.

Coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, mouse running on a wheel? Do you know where your energy comes from? As an environmental professional I take for granted that my electricity come mostly from coal and partly from wind and/or geothermal. My home heat comes from natural gas. I was teaching an environmental class recently and was surprised at questions regarding how much coal is used to power our homes and cities.

If you’re not in the environmental field, but keep an eye on the news, you still may have heard news about the Keystone XL pipeline, oil production booming in North Dakota, T Boone Pickens, or fracking. Do you know these issues are all related to you watching reruns and driving to Costco? If you don’t know what’s powering your TV, don’t worry, it seems many people don’t. Here is your guide to a basic understanding of where your energy comes from and where you can get more information.

The United States energy comes from coal 37%, natural gas 30%, nuclear 19%, hydropower 7%, other renewable 5% (biomass 1.42%, geothermal 0.41%, solar 0.11%, wind 3.46%), petroleum 1%, and other gases < 1%. All of the data presented here and below is from the US Energy Information Administration. To me, the most interesting thing about this data is that solar is only producing 0.11% of our electricity. I assumed much more than that. Despite all the solar panels I see around Colorado, it’s just a blip in the larger energy picture.

That is the US total, but if you live in a state that doesn’t have a nuclear power plant, like I do in Colorado, then your percentages are going to change. In Colorado, 62% of our electricity production comes from coal and 6% comes from wind. Both are nearly double the national average.

Gypsom Biomass

Steam coming from the biomass power plant in Gypsum, CO.

Looking around the country, here is some interesting energy usage in three other states.

  • Pennsylvania generated 40% of its net electricity from coal and 35% from nuclear power in 2013.
  • In Florida, natural gas accounted for 62% of Florida’s net generation, coal 21%, and nuclear power accounted for 12%.
  • In 2013, 70% of Oregon’s net electricity generation was from conventional hydroelectric power plants and other renewable energy resources.

You can see how much it varies from states to state. Here are two good resources to find out exactly, “Where does my energy come from?”

  1. The US Energy Information Administration provides all the state data here.
  2. Even better, the EPA has a Power Profiler site where you enter your zip code and it provides you a break down of your electrical energy sources.
NREL Wind Technology Center

NREL Wind Technology Center along the Colorado Front Range.



Energy Environment of the Western Slope


I-70 through Colorado’s Western Slope in winter.

When you drive along I-70 between Vail Pass and Grand Junction through Colorado’s Western Slope it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the mountain west. In fact, you should get lost in the beauty. If you look a little closer at the landscape, you’ll see all the signs of Colorado’s energy environment – the oil and gas industry, renewable resources, and even history related to the Manhattan Project. I make this drive a few times each year and have seen the growth and change.

Driving east-to-west, you first pass Vail ski resort. Although all you’ll see are the hotels and ski runs, Vail has been a significant player in wind power and sustainability within the resort industry.

You could drive through Glenwood Canyon dozens of times before noticing the Shoshone hydroelectric generating station. It’s been generating power for western Colorado since 1909!

solar panels

Storage tank operated by solar panels.

I’ve seen the small town of Rifle go from a rest stop along the highway to a hub for the booming natural gas industry since the boom of 2007-2009. Exit I-70 for some gas or food and you’ll be in traffic behind trucks from Haliburton, Schlumberger, and every other oil and gas company working the west. The impact on the landscape is now hard to miss. One of the more interesting impacts today is all the storage tanks, which are ironically powered by solar panels.

The newest addition to this areas energy resources is the biomass power plant in Gypsum, which just opened December 16, 2013. As I made this drive last week, the steam coming out of the plant was impossible to miss, since it blocked out the sun for a moment. This plant will be burning trees from pine bettle-kill and from forest burn areas to produce steam to produce electricity. This will help clear badly burned and damaged forest areas.

Gypsom Biomass

Steam coming from biomass powerplant in Gypsum, CO.

The discussion of biomass as a renewable energy source and environmentally-friendly is not as cut and dry as solar or wind as renewable energy. Biomass is considered carbon neutral, meaning it doesn’t produce any additional carbon dioxide. Although trees are renewable, it’s debatable regarding how renewable versus the amount of energy they produce. Then there is the air pollution. Burning wood produces a lot of particulate matter, which isn’t as toxic as burning fossil fuels, but it is a regulated pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Just think about the last time you sat around a camp fire or your fire place. It’s an interesting, new power source for the west, whose debate will continue.

As you drive west into Grand Junction, there’s no easy-to-see signs of the Department of Energy’s involvement in the Manhattan Project, but it’s there. There is still a DOE facility in Grand Junction, which once processed the uranium from nearby mines. Grand Junction has seen the ups (jobs and growth) and downs (cancers and illness from improper disposal).

Hydroelectric, biomass, natural gas, and nuclear power. That’s an impressive list of resources to take in without leaving the comfort of your cars. It’s an energy environment resource driving tour.

Contaminated Water

Contaminated pond near the DOE facility in Grand Junction, CO.


Wyoming’s Rich Energy Resources

Wind turbines, coal rail car, and an oil refinery in Casper, WY.

Wind turbines, coal rail car, and an oil refinery in Evansville, WY.

I was driving through Wyoming along I-25 between Cheyenne and Casper and it was impossible to miss the rich energy resources available in this state. Just In this 180-mile stretch of highway I passed a few long rail cars carrying coal, two coal power plants, a hydroelectric power plant, several wind farms, and the refinery in Evansville. That’s amazing and that’s just what you see along one highway in the southeast portion of the state.

I initially thought that the energy resources stood out because Wyoming is such a sparsely populated state. That’s partially true. Wyoming has the lowest population of any state and is #1 state in the country for energy production per capita. But I’ve been all over the country and there is no stretch of road that I’ve driven with the amount and range of energy resources that jumps out at you like this. That’s why I was not surprised that Wyoming is the #2 state for total energy production. Texas is #1. (Maybe I haven’t spent enough time in southeast Texas.) Wyoming is #1 for coal production in the US and that is also not surprising. The over 1-mile long coal rail cars are not just seen in Wyoming, but also up and down the Colorado Front Range, where I live, as the coal is transported to power plants in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas.

Throughout the rest of the state you’ll find natural gas, hydrothermal, solar, uranium and precious metal mines. The state is a geologic wonder for beauty, range of features, and complexity and that has lead to it being such an interesting state for our energy resources. Check out the US Energy Information Administration page for Wyoming for more stats and information.

Dave Johnson power plant.

Dave Johnson power plant.

photo 1

Coal rail cars along I-25.