Tuesday, August 28, 2007

'Clean' Coal, Conventional Coal, and Shinola: A Comparative Study

A few years ago, a millionaire from New York came into South Portland, Maine and proposed to build 41-story twin towers on top of a convention center/plastic surgery hospital. The complex also would have included an aerial tram over the harbor to downtown Portland, and an extended-stay luxury hotel in one of the towers where plastic surgery patients would recover. Like many of his colleagues, this developer was wealthy in cash and ego and bankrupt in taste.

Now another strange and unlikely plan is taking shape further north, in the quaint seaside town of Wiscasset. A cadre of Connecticut real-estate developers are proposing a new coal gasification power plant just north of the shuttered Maine Yankee nuclear reactors.

Coal gasification is a process that's been around for decades now: it bakes coal at high temperatures to break the stuff down into energy and component chemicals, some of which can be synthesized into diesel fuel or natural gas (wikipedia has the chemistry lesson). Compared to a conventional coal plant, there are, indeed, some significant advantages: sulfur and mercury in the coal gets baked out and separated instead of going up the smokestack. The gasification process is also more efficient, using less coal to produce more energy. And a byproduct is syngas, which can be converted either into natural gas or diesel fuel (the gasification process was used extensively in Germany during WWII due to oil and gas shortages).

The Connecticut real estate developers are proposing to manufacture synthetic diesel fuel, which will also have some marginal pollution benefits over typical diesel, from the new plant in Wiscasset.

Sounds good, right? The developers also claim that the plant will "support... the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)... to reduce overall carbon emissions" and that it "bolsters Maine's self-reliance by reducing transportation fuel imports." These and other "top ten local and regional benefits" can be found on the Twin River Energy Center web site.

But the gee-whiz attitude is either misleading or misguided - probably some combination of both. There are some glaring instances of bad math and bad science in the developers' "fact" sheets. Here's a gem: "Diesel engines are 26% more fuel efficient than gasoline engines and therefore emit 26% less CO2." In fact, the cetane molecules in synthetic diesel contain a lot more carbon per gallon than gasoline's isooctane, and diesel emissions include heat-absorbing soot particles that are extremely powerful greenhouse pollutants.

If they were better at math, the developers would avoid the carbon question like the plague, because there's no denying that this proposed plant would convert millions of tons of coal (carbon) into global-warming CO2. This plant would only "support" RGGI insofar as it would have to buy up literal tons of carbon-pollution credits on the regional market.

Now, theoretically, the plant might at some point be able to "sequester" the greenhouse gases it produces them and, I don't know, shoot a rocket full of its CO2 to the moon, or something. The technology doesn't exist yet, but our friends in the coal lobby assure us that they're working on it.

As for other pollutants, gasification removes most mercury and sulfur from the smokestack emissions, but there's still enough left coming out of the tailpipe to make this proposed plant one of the biggest, if not the biggest single source of mercury and acid rain pollution in Maine. At least the prevailing winds will blow it down into the wealthy lungs in the midcoast region, and not into mine.

Finally, Maine is not a coal mining state, which undermines the idea of rugged "self-reliance". Coal would have to be imported, and most of it would probably come from mountaintop removal strip mines in impoverished regions of southern Appalachia (see photo above).

There are shadowy economic problems as well. Most of these gasification plants still require huge government subsidies, even with demand for their natural-gas and diesel byproducts at an all-time high. The industry argues that a few early subsidies will reduce technology costs to the point where all new coal plants can adopt the gasification process in the future. But this argument presumes that we'd want to build new coal plants, which seems like a foolhardy assumption in the face of imminent climate disaster. At the very least, carbon taxes and regulations like RGGI will make any kind of coal power more and more expensive... so why not save our subsidies for unambiguously clean technologies?

In short, all of the "advantages" of "clean" coal only look good when you compare the idea against the extremely bad example of a conventional coal plant. Otherwise, "clean coal" looks like... well, it's definitely not shinola.

An opposition group has already emerged in Wiscasset, but judging by the developers' amateurish pitch and the inherent lousiness of the idea, they shouldn't have to work very hard.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The New Watersheds in Art and Literature

Last night I watched The Host, an excellent Korean monster movie. I'd heard it described as a cross between The Royal Tenenbaums and Godzilla, and also as a hybrid of Little Miss Sunshine and Jaws. I'd been skeptical, but these descriptions turned out to fit pretty well - it's a monster movie with a cunning and unique sense of humor. The movie also satirizes globalism and media-fueled groupthink, with a number of scenes that reminded me of one of my favorite books, Don Delilo's White Noise.

But what made me particularly fond of The Host was its underground staging in the concrete rivers beneath Seoul. The first scene takes place in a United States Army hospital, where an American doctor orders his assistant to dump toxic chemicals down the drain. Presumably, a sewer overflow event then discharges the stuff into the Han River, and before long, a mutant man-eating creature is rampaging among picnickers in the riverside park. The symbolism is cutting: here's the Army, aloof and detached from its environment, unwittingly creating a monster.

How does one defeat the product of municipal toxic sludge, then? By familiarizing oneself with the mysterious new watersheds that delivered it, of course. For the rest of the movie, the leading characters try to avenge themselves against the monster by navigating the city's underground rivers and surveilling the sites where they discharge into the Han.

Meanwhile, above ground, the city takes its cues for panic not from the monster itself, but from detached television newsreaders. Television networks are like sewers that run uphill, delivering terror and misery from God knows where into our homes and public places.

Anyhow, go rent it - it's out on DVD. After we saw it last night, Jess and I tried to think up other works of literature and art in which sewers play a major role. Here's what we came up with:

Les Miserables: Jean Valjean's escapes via Paris's sewers, which also receive an extensive historical treatment in an earlier plot digression;

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: as with the Host, the Turtles were born in the crucible of sewer-enabled environmental disaster, and continue to live in sewers to this day;

Gravity's Rainbow: Tyrone Slothrop disappears down a London toilet early in the book.

Can anyone think of others? More sewer arts and literature in the comments, please...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wild and Scenic Fresh Kills Park

This place pictured above satisfies most conventional definitions of wilderness: you're very unlikely to see another human here, and it hosts a huge spectrum of wildlife habitat, from the wetlands in the foreground to the open meadows on the hill behind.

Where is it? The Sierran foothills of California? Pastureland in Vermont? Texas hill country? Nope - these acres are within the boundaries of the nation's largest city. This is what remains of Fresh Kills landfill, the site where New York tossed its late-20th-century garbage.

Hiking and picnics are strictly forbidden here, thus the absence of people. But in spite of the heavy metals and other toxics that leach from the buried garbage into the water, the salt marshes of Fresh Kills still attract a remarkable amount of wildlife, and the savannah-like hillsides are a welcome refuge for a number of other critters.

Over the next 30 years, New York City plans to turn Fresh Kills into a fully public park, 3 times the size of Central Park. The household garbage underground will probably leach poisons into the surrounding marshes for millennia to come, but don't let that keep you from taking a pleasant paddle among the man-made hills...

Click here for a satellite view of the landfill/salt marsh

Fresh Kills Master Plan: NYC Dept. of Planning

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Lower Manhattan, then (in 1757) and now

Lower Manhattan today...

...and as it was in 1757. In both views, the street running up the center is Broadway.

Note the "Collect Pond" in the historic map, near present-day Foley Square. This spring-fed pond was once New York City's main source of drinking water, until the pollution from tanneries and thousands of chamberpots made it unfit for consumption. After one too many typhoid outbreaks, the City drained the pond by digging a 40-foot trench that drained into the Hudson. That trench is now Canal Street.

Also note how Lower Manhattan's original Hudson River waterfront was beneath present-day Greenwich Street.

As with last week's historic map of Portland, Maine, you can download this overlay as a Google Earth KML file. Use the opacity slider to transition between the 1757 map and the present-day satellite view - it's pretty neat.

Also, if you enjoy these historic map overlays of modern-day cities, you might also be entertained by the Strange Maps blog, which kind of inspired this little project. And here's a Brooklyn blogger's investigation into the history of his own neighborhood's street grid.

Previously: The Sepulture of Portland Harbor. Next week, we'll head out west to Los Angeles!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dumpsters hate feudalism

Under heavy siege
The dumpster is an unassuming but deadly foe.
This is the old Child World store in the Pine Tree Shopping Center on Brighton Avenue, one of the few buildings in architecturally-rich Portland that has survived twenty years' worth of my memory. As I recall, the old mascot for Child World was a panda, a friendly ambassador from the motherland of cheap toys.

For almost twenty years Child World has been out of business and the castle's keep has been occupied by Mardens, a "surplus and salvage" store. Mardens is sort of a retailing vulture, moving among disaster areas, trailer truck crashes, and bankrupt big box stores to bring cheap, almost-good-as-new merchandise to Maine. Apparently they've finally realized that maintaining a castle is superfluous to their business plan.

So now, the Child World castle is under heavy siege. It will probably fall any day now to construction workers intent on replacing a bizarre anachronism (of the 1980s) with something innocuous and coated in bland stucco: the architectural equivalent of Muzak.

In the meantime, if anyone needs a free battlement, inquire at the dumpster on outer Brighton Ave. If the first one is taken, a second should be available soon.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Rights of Way

For the past few months, I've been trying to maintain this blog as a sort of split personality: at once focused on urban environmentalism in general, and also periodically obsessed with hyperlocal issues here in Portland, Maine.

I never heard any specific criticism from anyone, but I always suspected that this arrangement didn't suit my readers very well. I don't expect someone from Texas to share the same indignation I had over the Maine Turnpike Authority's failure to build a sidewalk. And for that matter, a lot of Portlanders probably don't give a hoot about Escape from New York.

So now I've made the schism complete: introducing Rights of Way, a new blog dedicated to better streets and public spaces in Portland and throughout Maine. From now on, rants about the Turnpike Authority and Maine State Pier will be segregated from The Vigorous North. The ROW blog will also solicit contributions from other neighborhood activists, because I still intend to spend most of my blogging effort here.

The ROW blog is moving into its new digs with some leftover posts from here and these two new posts:

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Sepulture of Portland Harbor

Portland, Maine, in 1837...

...and in 2001. A bit thicker around the middle, but still recognizable after all these years.

Points of interest in this transformation include Middle Street west of Temple (1960s urban renewal decommissioned the diagonal), Fore Street's ghost waterfront, and the transformation of the 1837 "City Farm" into the present-day stadium complex.

Feel free to download the KML overlay file to view these maps in closer detail. You'll need a free copy of Google Earth, available here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Escape From New York

Back in the late 1970s, John Carpenter wrote and directed a movie based on the premise that Manhattan Island would be abandoned and turned into a maximum-security prison by 1997.

"Escape from New York" (which has a highly recommended Wikipedia article) nicely sums up the pessimistic attitudes people had about our cities only 30 years ago. The movie was actually filmed in East St. Louis, where a massive urban fire had reduced hundreds of downtown blocks to rubble. The city had suffered one of the nation's worst cases of white flight, and its bankrupt government had no objections to its streets being used as a post-apocalyptic movie set.

Mort Gerberg cartoon from the New Yorker, 2002.
Fifteen years later, Giuliani was Disneyfying Times Square, and urban desperation had followed its manifest destiny westward to Los Angeles. "Escape from LA" came out in 1996, following the Northridge earthquake, the Rodney King riots, and OJ Simpson's terminal celebrity. The movie's plot, about a religious fascist who rises to power when "the big one" floods the San Fernando Valley, both exploited and mocked the 1990s' national hatred of Southern California.

In 2007, we still have spectacular urban disasters: 9/11, Katrina, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. And yet (with the possible exception of New Orleans) these disasters don't elicit fantasies of abandoning/escaping our cities. In the real-life 21st century, the closest thing we have to "Escape from New York" is a weekly section of recommended vineyard tours and golf resorts in the Times.

In fact, most of our 21st-century penal colonies are actually being built in economically-depressed rural hinterlands. Perhaps "Escape from Berlin, New Hampshire" could be a part of Kurt Russell's retirement plan?