Harbor visit informative for journalists

The bus was a little late arriving Thursday due to some traffic issues, but when the passengers got to the Dunkirk pier, Dr. Peter Reinelt, chair of the Department of Economics at the State University of New York at Fredonia, could not have had a more interested group of listeners.

Reinelt delivered a presentation to those passengers, journalists attending the Shale Country Institute, a four-day expedition devoted to all aspects of shale gas. Reinelt’s talk covered global warming, various energy source options, costs of those options, and the possible costs of doing nothing. The journalists had plenty of questions, including some to do with the NRG power plant looming in the background.

Dave Spratt is from the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, a non-profit organization formed to advance public understanding of natural resource issues through professional development for journalists who report on growth, economic development, rural communities, natural resources and the environment.

“We gather journalists from around the country and go to the places where these things are happening because it’s a lot easier to understand an issue if you can see it for yourself and talk to the people who live it. That’s a lot easier to understand than making a phone call or reading a newspaper article,” Spratt explained. “What we try to do is get journalists out into the field to understand these things better and right now the shale gas boom is the natural resources issue, maybe of our time, but certainly of our current time. … We came here to Dunkirk because the plant with the conversion ongoing is a living example of what is happening in the energy environment right now and (Reinelt) seemed to know a lot about the environmental economics.

“We’ve seen a lot of technical things. We visited a well pad, we’re going to a refinery, we’re going to talk about deep-injection wells. … We’re going to all these specific things so we hoped an economist could give us the 20,000-foot view of what this shale gas boom means in the whole world of energy.”

Spratt said the majority of the group’s programs deal with the Great Lakes.

For his part Reinelt said the 90-minute presentation went well.

“It was enjoyable to meet a lot of journalists from around the country. What I was trying to accomplish was to just give them, from an economic perspective the economics of climate change, the economics of energy, the economics of shale gas and the tradeoffs between different types of fuels generating electricity,” Reinelt explained. “We try to maximize the net benefits to society over time. We benefit from a clean environment but we also benefit from having electricity. Some renewables are more expensive, solar particularly is more expensive. Wind energy on a large scale is fairly competitive. … Natural gas and coal are cheaper but they also cause more damage to human health specifically, especially coal, so we’re trying to balance all of those effects that are included in the market and those effects on people’s lives and the environment that aren’t included in the markets.

“Solar is too expensive now. Solar costs at least 13 cents an hour per kilowatt, new gas plants are usually 6, 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity at the wholesale level. Wind is 8 cents per kilowatt hour so wind is much more competitive than solar. I advocate wind and energy conservation. We can actually save money by putting more insulation in buildings and reduce pollution at the same time.”

Reinelt said solar is a few years away but will eventually happen because fossil fuels are finite and moving away from coal is good due to the pollution is causes.

“There’s no doubt that climate change is occurring but the economic and environmental impacts, we don’t know exactly the sensitivity of the climate when we change carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” he added. “If it turns out to be bad this power plant once it’s converted to natural gas will last 30 years, then there will be a push to replace it with renewables like wind or some other renewable, solar by that time. But if climate change turns out to be on the not-as-bad end of the spectrum, then the plant may last 60 years. Even when we switch to solar and wind, it’s not windy all the time and the sun doesn’t shine all the time so you need something to fill that gap. You either have to develop storage methods to store electricity from solar or wind, or you’re going to use most likely natural gas to fill those gaps while that storage is developed.”

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