The Maricopa Orchard solar project. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Try to picture the total amount of energy you’ve spent in your lifetime. Visualize every time you’ve turned on the lights, every time you’ve plugged your phone or laptop into an outlet, or even every time you’ve opened the refrigerator. Now imagine all of that energy fitting inside something as minuscule as a soda can. While this may seem like some far-fetched fantasy, it is actually a reality that can be achieved through the utilization of nuclear energy.
“Some atoms are slightly unstable in such a way that if you hit them with a neutron, they’ll absorb [it] and [release] a whole bunch of energy,” said Kathryn Huff, an assistant professor in the nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
This process is called nuclear fission, which occurs in a highly regulated nuclear plant. The first step involves making tall, skinny rods out of uranium, about the diameter of a pinky finger. These will then be placed in water inside the reactor. Then, an external source of neutrons is shot through the plant, where it will come into contact with the uranium rods and start up the reaction.
“Each fission [reaction] produces more than one neutron. [Fission reactions] can [actually] produce up to 10 neutrons. In induced fission of uranium-235, you will most likely get two to three, 2.41, on average, but you in principle can have up to 10. So, these new neutrons that are produced, they will on their turn induce fission. And then the fission reaction will become what we refer to as a chain reaction, and they’ll be able to sustain this [process] through the reactor,” said Angela Di Fulvio, also from UIUC.
After the fission reaction occurs in the uranium rods, the energy and heat is then transferred to the water around them.
“You pump that water around in a circle and outside the reactor, it passes through a heat exchanger and the heat is removed from the water and sent as steam. You let that water become steam, but you keep the water that’s in the reactor. [It’s] kind of running in a closed loop: it enters the reactor and then it leaves the reactor hot, and you keep that pump going,” explained Huff. “[The steam] goes through a secondary pipe towards the turbine, [which] is basically just like a big fan. It pushes the blades of that fan around just like the wind pushes a wind turbine. The turbine is attached to a magnet, the magnet is inside a coil of wires, and when a magnet spins inside wires, electrons move through those wires, and electrons moving through wires is how we turn the lights on.”
Nuclear energy is also incredibly dependable. Currently, about 20% of the power used in the US is supplied by nuclear energy.
“I think one of the things that we have taken for granted in the United States is the reliability of the electricity on our grid. When you walk into your house and you turn on the lights, they turn on no matter what’s happening outside or anything like that. But as we introduce more and more renewable energy into our grid, we don’t necessarily combine it with as much storage technology as we need to back it up in the case that the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, or in case the coal trains don’t make it to the coal plants,” said Huff. “Nuclear is very reliable because you only have to refuel the plant once every year and a half. And you can keep a batch of fuel or a couple batches of fuel onsite without taking up a lot of space. You could run a nuclear plant for years. They’re not really affected by external forces.”
While nuclear energy may not produce any carbon emissions, it produces something that could be even deadlier: nuclear waste. When the nuclei of uranium atoms split apart, they will form smaller nuclei, and thus, new elements called fission products. The new fission products are unstable, and will release energy, making them very radioactive. To contain these dangerous products, they are first kept in the reactor for a few years, then transferred to a cooling pool and kept underwater for another few years. When this process is finished, they will still be in the form of solid rods. These rods will be taken out of the reactor and either be disposed of at a disposal facility or recycled, like they do in France.
“During the reactor process, you only split a small percentage of the [uranium] atoms. But if you chop it up and you get just the uranium atoms that haven’t been split yet, then you could make a new fuel rod and put it back in the reactor,” explained Huff.
Outside of just energy production, nuclear energy has played another important role in influencing not just other fields of energy, but many other vital aspects of science.
“A field that benefits from nuclear energy is medicine, because the nuclear reactors can also be used to create isotopes that can be then used for nuclear medicine patients, for cancer diagnostics and treatment,” said Di Fulvio. She also mentions robots used in nuclear power plants, which also have applications in many other fields.
It’s a good thing that nuclear power is heavily regulated, and other industries should take a hint”
— Kathryn Huff
“It’s a good thing that nuclear power is heavily regulated, and other industries should take a hint,” said Huff. “People fall off roofs installing photovoltaic cells. There are wind turbines that catch on fire and have killed engineers installing them… We don’t have a very good safety record.”
Another option for alternative energy are biofuels, or plant-based sources of energy. An example of a biofuel is lignin.
Lignin is a compound found in the cell walls of many plants, making them woody and tough. As of now, lignin is most commonly seen being removed from trees when making paper. However, it has excellent potential for replacing petroleum, a substance used for fuels and creating plastics which has contributed largely to global warming.
“Right now, [the paper industry] produces about 60 million tons of lignin as a byproduct [every year],” said Marcus Foston, an associate professor of engineering at Washington University. He is part of a team of engineers working on a project to develop a process to break down lignin with low-temperature plasmas in order for it to replace harmful petroleums. “A lot of times it’s just burned in various processing plants. The idea is that if you burn it, you can get some heat out of it. Whatever we get out of lignin, it needs to be more valuable than the electricity that we replace it with.”
Due to how common it is, lignin is an incredibly abundant and accessible resource that can be utilized. However, it has proven extremely difficult to break down. “Lignin is a really complex material. The sequence of building blocks that makes it up is very variable. It can change from tissue to tissue, or plant to plant or species to species,” said Foston. “This means that the ways in which we may want to extract it or use it becomes very difficult to understand on a first principle or basic level.”
Once lignin is able to be broken down, the next step is to figure out how it can actually be used. “About 70% of a barrel of oil goes to production of fuel. 3.4% of that barrel of oil goes towards petrochemicals, which produce the commodity products and chemicals that we use all the time. [Fuels and petrochemicals] are inevitably linked,” said Foston. “When we think about lignin, we think about it the same way. [We ask ourselves], ‘Can we burn it to make electricity? Can we compress it to make it into a more usable, more dense solid, that’s more easily transported?”
The convenience of a substance is incredibly important to keep in mind if it is to be used by the public. When it comes to manipulating the physical state of lignin to get it ready for use, there are a lot of different options. Examples include turning it into a liquid through pyrolysis or converting it to a gas with gasification.
The principles behind the use of biofuels has applications to many other environmental issues. “A huge amount of plastic recycling actually doesn’t go into recycling. And that’s because there’s no economic motivation [behind it],” said Foston. “[Right now,] we’re breaking down biomass into smaller fragments that will be used for fuels and chemicals. We can think about how we can do the same thing to plastics.”
Renewable energy sources are drastically better for both the environment and people living in it. It’s predicted that with our current usage rate of fossil fuels and natural gas, we will run out of these resources by 2060. However, with solar energy, individuals utilize an inexhaustible source of energy: the sun. Many homeowners have been purchasing rooftop solar panels to produce their own electricity.
“People come to solar for a variety of reasons. For some it’s the environmental savings, the environmental security and [for others it’s the] financial savings,” explained Eric Schneider, director of business development at StraightUp Solar, a St. Louis based company that operates in Missouri and Illinois. “What other appliance in your house pays itself back?”
StraightUp Solar is a certified B Corporation, which means that the company strives to help communities and enact positive environmental change as well as make a profit. The company participates in the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Grow Solar program, which offers neighborhood communities opportunities to pool money and share the benefits of solar at a cheaper rate.
There are many financial and economic incentives to purchasing solar energy, which generally garner bipartisan support. “At least a couple years ago, solar installer jobs [were] the fastest growing job in Missouri, and it’s typically one of the fastest growing jobs around the country,” said Grace Tedder from EFS Energy, a St. Louis based solar company. “Solar is [also] becoming cheaper as an energy source, especially for utility scale solar, which is where you just have massive amounts of land with tons of solar panels on it. It is cheaper than operating these old coal plants, [which] need to be shut down.”
There is also a 30 percent federal investment tax credit for solar energy, but this credit has not been renewed by the Trump administration, and it has decreased by 4% since 2019 and will expire at the end of 2021 if not renewed earlier.
While solar energy is incredibly advantageous as an energy source, Tedder believes there is still a need for improvement. “A lot of times, the raw materials [used in solar panels] are extracted in really harmful ways from a lot of developing countries, and there’s a lot of human rights issues that go along with that,” said Tedder. “That’s not necessarily a reason to [think that] solar is bad and we have to use coal, because coal and fracking for natural gas is actively worse. But it doesn’t mean that [solar energy] is perfect. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there to still improve on that.”
Although people on both sides of the political spectrum support renewable energy incentives, electric utilities with legal monopolies use immense lobbying power and funding to resist change at the state level.
Most utilities are heavily backed by donors from the fossil fuel industry, and lobbying is very prevalent at the state level. In 2019, over 118 million dollars was spent by electric utilities while over 125 million dollars were spent by the oil and gas industry, while less than a million dollars were spent by renewable energy groups.
Because of their political influence, lobbying groups have much control over state legislature and regulations on their own monopolies. Often, these corporations use confusing policy wording to influence voter decisions on proposed amendments.
Utilities in many states implement a paying system for consumers with solar called net metering. When a consumer’s solar system overproduces during the day, excess energy is returned to the grid if it is not stored in a battery. At night when the system is not producing, the utility credits the homeowner with the amount of energy they initially overproduced.
If homeowners produce more electricity than they consume for the entire day, utilities have varying responses. In Illinois, consumers are paid back the full retail value of the electricity they produced. In St. Louis, however, Ameren pays back consumers the wholesale price, which is far less than the retail price.
“[Illinois has] had several incentives to where if you’re going to put solar on your home or your business, you can get some money back on that to help subsidize the cost of it… They’ve had some good incentives to help make it easier for home and business owners to put in solar. I was actually there visiting a job site, and all around me I could just stand there and count houses that had solar on it,” said Tedder. “[In] Missouri, [there are] some incentives, but not as much as Illinois, so it’s not as financially easy to get solar. There’s [a lot less solar] and it was crazy to see the implications of the policy that visibly represented.”
Some monopolies have done work as stated on its website.
These initiatives are necessary to move forward in the fight against global warming, but there are many unanswered questions. For example, why won’t Ameren Missouri pay consumers full retail value for excess electricity they produce?
And although 2050 is the net zero carbon neutrality date agreed upon by the European Climate Foundation, some people are skeptical of the time frame. “Achieving that type of neutrality by 2050 in many ways from a scientific standpoint… it’s not soon enough” explained Bob Pashos, solar support specialist at StraightUp Solar, who is also an active member of the B Corp committee.
“To me it’s an example of how different utilities are still dragging their feet to some extent, in terms of cooperating with that transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, there’s no way to get around it.”
The simple truth: solar is a competitor, which by definition, monopolies can’t allow.
Whether you’re in high school or college or none of the above, [you can work] with groups that are climate focused or get involved with advocacy for clean energy and solar policy in Missouri”
— Grace Tedder
Ultimately, even the small efforts count in the battle against global warming. “Whether you’re in high school or college or none of the above, [you can work] with groups that are climate focused or get involved with advocacy for clean energy and solar policy in Missouri. There’s lots of different opportunities for that,” said Tedder.
“I do have a lot of concerns myself about the climate emergency… [It’s] a real global emergency that really does require very strong, powerful action in order to make the kind of difference that we need to make,” Pashos said. “[But] there’s other things I do too… giving presentations, taking part in rallies, writing my congressmen… Although I have some concerns about the time frame, I believe in doing everything we can.”