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Paul Martin Suckow

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AIR POLLUTION problems come from making electricity.

Over 1/3 of Houston area AIR POLLUTION problems come from making electricity. To a slightly lesser extent AIR POLLUTION comes from transportation and the final third from industrial sources.  Only about 5% of Texans in a survey at the end of 2004 understood the unhealthy implications of the electricity they purchased.  As many residents know, air quality in the Houston area is constantly vying for "worst in the U.S." with Los Angeles, CA for ground level ozone metrics, but Houston is far worse for air toxics due to petrochemical emissions. 

Still, the largest third of the air quality problem stems from our regional reliance on open-air coal-fired power plants, while the national statistic is only slightly better: At least 51% of U.S. air pollution results from electric generators.  (Government figures you will find online report 39%, but most recently published data, usually dates to 2001 or 2002...and as both our population and reliance on coal increases, the numbers only get worse.)   Even at the least polluting times, 53% of electricity on the Texas grid arrives from a coal-fired generator!  That's right: since Hurricane Katrina, over half of the electric fuel mix in the Centerpoint grid (Houston market area) is burning coal, year-round.  During the winter months, these relative figures increase dramatically as the natural gas-burners, which are more expensive to operate but only half as polluting as coal burners, shut down with falling electrical demand.

Over one billion pounds of air emissions are added to the atmosphere from U.S. coal burning every year.  Looking at the global warming potential of US air emissions since 1990, total annual energy use had increased by a Carbon Dioxide equivalent of nearly one trillion tons by 2004 (an increase of 21% over the 1990 benchmark).  Meanwhile changes in land use (suburban sprawl) reduced carbon sinks that used to soak up 15% of US annual emissions in 1990.  Over the past seven years sinks only soaked up 11% annually.  If we are to change that steady pattern within the next ten years, as most scientists believe we must to avoid permanent climate damage, we will need to eliminate all of that additional greenhouse gas our population and economic expansion has added since 1990, and then remove another ten percent or so.  This thirty percent reduction must be done within ten years, it is said, and then steady reductions must follow every decade to reach an undoubtedly warmer and more violent but hopefully stable climate with roughly double the greenhouse gasses of the pre-industrial era (According to Dr. James Hansen of Columbia University, the most accurate computer climate models in 2007 are beginning to question whether even this level could tip into natural runaway climate change, with far greater and faster sea level rise and all the rest).  Further reductions of 50%-60% would be needed over a century timescale to reach a sustainable level of annual greenhouse gas production on Earth, in the US 60% to 80% less than annual greenhouse gas production in 1990.  The alternative, business as usual, even by conservative estimates results in nothing less than the sudden erosion of coastal communities where half of US population resides, rapid evolution of disease and disease vectors, and periodic water shortages/desertification in the American breadbasket.

The numerous technologies needed to accomplish the turnaround are already known and partially developed for commercialization.  Commercial acceptance while strong economic support for old, unfit technologies and lifestyles persists is by no means assured.  The U.S. government is betting that consumers will exercise their own informed willpower to demand sustainable development and cleaner technologies, obviating the need for actual political will or intervention by the government.  Personally, I doubt an unassisted market can accomplish the turnabout in a decade under its own power.  Yet I am doing all I can within these constraints to convince consumers to lessen their ecological footprint in the US, starting with switching their purchasing power to renewable resource producers and then expanding their personal energy responsibility by conserving energy use and reducing wastes.  If over our lifetimes we each squeeze the fossil energy we use in everything that we control by 80 to 90%, no small feat, the United States will certainly regain the high ground in the global fight for a better future.

My loving concern is shifting to China, "the place that makes everything."  Any gains US consumers accrue toward stability could easily be lost to another wild-west, laissez faire development mentality and a long deprived middle class population 400 million strong and growing.  Mutually, it will take the triple strengths of humility, creativity and humanity to avoid deteriorating health and welfare through loss of the global commons to catastrophic climate change.

I welcome any skeptics to verify that I speak truthfully about CO2, SO2, NOX, fine particulates and aerosols from the burning of coal and lignite creating the largest portion of air pollutants, and the distribution of such pollutants in Texas.  Check out Dina Cappiello's 3/27/2006 excellent Houston Chronicle air toxics study!  For an academically rigorous treatment see e.g. Kristi A. Gebhert, William C. Malm and Lowell L. Ashbaugh in the November 2005 Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association - "Spatial, Temporal and Interspecies Patterns in Fine Particulate Matter in Texas."

If you've followed me to this point, you are definitely doing your homework.  I'm proud of you!  Click for more, or go back!


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