The Independent likes to preen its Green feathers as The Paper That Understands The Environment. Today it uses this picture (click to enlarge)
to illustrate an article about ‘the upper and lower limits of the world’s ambitions to cut the emissions of carbon dioxide which are causing climate change’ (and there should be a comma between dioxide and which!)
Such pictures are always impressive in themselves, but what the arty types who write British newspapers fail to understand is that what comes out of cooling towers is, err, steam. The implication, of course, is that it is nasty polluting smoke. One might expect even the artiest type to know that smoke is caused by burning things, not by cooling them, but even so I hope that I am dealing here with ignorance rather than malevolence.
All thermal power stations work in the same basic fashion. Fuel, of whatever kind, is burnt to heat water. The boiling water creates steam. The steam drives a turbine, which is the machine that drives the generator that produces the electricity. This process produces excess heat. The steam goes to the atmosphere. Steam is not a greenhouse gas. The relevance of this picture to the article is zero.
The BBC had a similar photo on Thursday, hyperbolic cooling towers belching forth steam, to illustrate an article about the environment. It has been changed. Now we see this:
The study asks whether emissions are being underestimated
Emissions of some greenhouse gases are substantially higher than companies and countries report, say scientists.
I do not know where this photo was taken and the BBC doesn’t say. I do however, see a hyperbolic cooling tower in it and I wonder whether it is a power station with a variety of cooling systems. To be honest, what is coming out of those chimneys looks to me more like steam than nasty smoke. I don’t know of course, but let’s have a look at Wikipedia:
All thermal power plants produce waste heat as a by-product of the useful electrical energy produced. Natural draft wet cooling towers at nuclear power plants and at some large thermal power plants are large hyperbolic chimney-like structures (as seen in the image at the left – Cooling towers evaporating water at Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, United Kingdom) that release the waste heat to the ambient atmosphere by the evaporation of water. However, the mechanical induced-draft or forced-draft wet cooling towers (as seen in the image to the right – Coal Power Station in Tampa, United States) in many large thermal power plants, petroleum refineries, petrochemical plants, geothermal, biomass and waste to energy plants use fans to provide air movement upward through downcoming water and are not hyperbolic chimney-like structures. The induced or forced-draft cooling towers are rectangular, box-like structures filled with a material that enhances the contacting of the upflowing air and the downflowing water.
Wikipedia also provides a picture of the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, a nuclear boiling water reactor power plant, showing that even nuclear plants, which produce no smoke at all, can have these cooling towers.
All power stations that use fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases of course, and there are ways, actual and potential, of dealing with the emissions that they produce. But pictures, however impressive, of steam going into the atmosphere, with the implication that it is causing environmental pollution, are not going to help people to understand what is happening.