Intelligent Pollution Control

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Courtesy of The McIlvaine Company

The world faces difficult pollution control decisions. For every dollar spent on pollution control, there is an alternative investment in health improvement. For every dollar spent on reducing one pollutant, there is an alternative to reduce another. The most prudent course to make the best investment should include:

  • Intelligent uncertainty
  • Intelligent classification of options
  • Intelligent reliance on niche expertise
  • Tribal value recognition
  • Net present value recognition

The history of climate change research can be measured in decades. Research on particulate pollution is measured in millennia. In England in the middle ages, the color of chimney smoke was used as a basis for regulation. Despite the struggles to eliminate particulate pollution, it remains the pollutant with the most negative impact on human health.

The science of particulate capture has progressed tremendously over the centuries. Today it is known that small particles are more deleterious than large ones. Many regulations are precisely written around particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). Immense numbers of research papers provide great statistical detail based on this size classification.

However, there is a problem. Few particles are spheres. There is also a weight differential. A tubular shaped particle of silica has to be equated to a sphere of lead. The analytical methods use “intelligent classification.” But one should view any conclusions based on particle size with “intelligent uncertainty.”

There are two different worlds of particulate removal. One deals with pollution control of stack gases. The other deals with purifying air for semiconductor cleanrooms. A tester using a high efficiency (HEPA) filter inserted in the stack and remaining clean will pronounce the air as clean as the most pure ambient air on earth.

However, there is another problem. The most pure air on the most pristine mountain is very dirty according to operators of semiconductor plants. In fact this air contains more than 100,000 small particles per cubic foot. As a result, semiconductor plants invest heavily to create Class 1 cleanrooms with less than one particle per cubic foot. They use a technique called condensation nuclei particle counters to make the efficiency measurement.

The complexity and uncertainty relative to the most researched pollutant should inspire us to apply intelligent uncertainty to any and all recommended initiatives. Intelligent classification entails effort. Furthermore, intelligent use of niche expertise is essential. If you need filters for your cleanroom, you do not utilize an expert in stack gas control.

Global warming decisions are enhanced by experts in tens of thousands of niches. The complexities are infinitely greater than those affecting particulate emissions. The scope of advice extracted from each expert should be narrowed to his area of expertise. The expert on sea level rise should not be asked what percentage of electricity should come from solar energy.

Tribal Values: Regulations on NOx have resulted in extensive investment in selective catalytic reduction (SCR) by power plants. NOx travels thousands of miles, so the reduction at one source does not necessarily benefit nearby citizens. However, these SCR systems also generate sulfuric acid in varying amounts. The acid is deposited near the stack. In one case in Ohio, the SCR installation resulted in so much acidic damage that the power plant bought and demolished an entire small town (better catalysts have now eliminated this problem).

We have a moral issue regarding tribal values. The world tribe benefits from NOx control but the Cheshire, Oho tribe lost everything. Global warming will benefit some people and negatively impact others. Each country will have to decide whether to put aside tribal values for the good of the world. Since countries such as the U.S. spend 99.9 percent of resources on the U.S. tribe and almost nothing on the Sudanese or Syrians, the tribal value is a factor which must be addressed.

Net Present Value: Some pollution control benefits are immediate. Others are longer term. What is the comparative value for something which benefits us or benefits our grandchildren? There is no simple or universal answer. Economists use net present value. The annual anticipated interest rate discounts the future value. However, this rate will vary greatly between developing and developed countries. Those who have everything are more interested in creating a better environment for their grandchildren. Those without anything are worried about keeping their children alive for the next month.

Last week China approved a $20 billion pipeline to transfer gas derived from coal to cities thousands of miles away from the north central coal regions where the coal will be gasified. This clean gas will be used in boilers and gas turbines to replace solid fuels which are causing much of the smog in Chinese cities. The immediate benefit will be enormous. Hundreds of thousands of lives may be saved as a result of this program.

The greenhouse gas impacts will also be significant. Some CO2 will be generated as a result of the gasification process. When the gas is burned in the turbines and boilers, additional CO2 will be generated. However, if the alternative is imported LNG, then the impact is much less. Some of this gas will replace cow dung, wood chips and coal used in small boilers and cooking fires. In these applications, the gas substitution is a big environmental improvement. Alternatively, China could accelerate its wind and solar program. However, this program could not be accelerated to have the immediate impact of the gasification pipeline.

This decision by China involves important tribal and net present value considerations. The gasification program will clearly benefit the Chinese but will contribute to the world’s global warming. The gasification program will save many lives in the short term, but may create a less desirable world 50 years from now. It is likely that China cannot be dissuaded from this program at the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris because tribal values are strong and, as a developing country, China places higher value on the present than do the wealthiest countries.

The solutions to the world’s pollution problems should be considered with intelligent uncertainty utilizing the best combination of niche experts who will provide the most valuable classifications including the tribal and net present values.

McIlvaine Company takes into account the potential impact of these factors in its forecasting and believes that this consideration is necessary for the greatest possible benefit to clients.

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