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for people who care about the West

It's time for Maximum Trashing Utilization


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.

As for mining in general, if we're going to haul rocks out of the ground and grind them up, we should get the maximum possible benefits from the process. As we move toward greener energy, such as wind turbines and electric cars, we will increasingly need obscure elements known as "rare earths," such as dysprosium, neodymium, and indium.

These elements’ ores are often found with thorium -- another obscure element, and one that's radioactive to boot. So should that thorium be encapsulated and buried again, a process under serious consideration for a rare-earth mine in Malaysia?

Does that make sense when it could be used to fuel nuclear reactors to generate electricity without emitting carbon dioxide? Especially given that thorium is not a suitable material for nuclear weapons?

Maximum Trashing Utilization would mean putting the thorium – the material that has already been dug out of the ground -- to work generating electricity.

Such additional recovery of minerals is nothing new. Back when it was operating, the immense Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, Colo., didn't just produce molybdenum. In the late 1940s, its engineers devised and installed “secondary recovery circuits” in the mill to make the mine a major American producer of tin, tungsten and iron pyrite, all from rocks that had already been dug up and ground up.

MTU would require us to change the way we do things: If we’re going to put up buildings, for example, we’ll automatically put solar panels on their roofs. If we're going to build parking lots, we’ll make them permeable so they capture rainfall for the local aquifer. Whenever we put up power lines, we’ll also use their corridors for wildlife migration and hiking trails.

The list could go on. The point is simple: We need to look at getting the most from the things we’re already doing. If that requires changes in how we regulate and grant permits, well, let's make those changes. It's time for Maximum Trashing Utilization to guide our national policy.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.