War Against Climate Change: There Will Be Some Collateral Damage

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War Against Climate ChangeNPR’s Morning Edition recently aired this story, a variation on a theme that I have written about in the past on CleanTechies and in scholarly work: green backlash against renewable power. The Morning Edition piece focused on the land use implications of renewables, noting that it takes a lot more land to generate a terawatt of solar, wind or biofueled electricity than of coal or natural gas power.

True enough. But, for me, it all comes down to the threshold question: do you believe the worst-case climate scenarios? If your answer is yes, and you have the courage of those convictions, then you realize — as I have — that we have no choice, and no time to dawdle. People who answer that question affirmatively know that the paradigm shifts in energy production and consumption that are necessary if we are to have any chance of righting our climatological ship will face knee-jerk opposition and demagoguery from opponents (s, e.g., the spring time bloodbath over the Waxman-Markey bill). A movement that remains — however gallingly — on such tenuous footing cannot afford to endure the additional obstacle of in-fighting over policy nuances. To twist a familiar and over-used metaphor:

As we argue about the impact that renewable energy production has on the sub-climactic environment, we are not even rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, we are arguing about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Only this time, the “iceberg, right ahead” is melting.

I was reassured to get the sense that at least one policymaker in my New England area understands this. In his letter responding to a Boston Phoenix story entitled “What’s Wrong with Wind Power,” Maine State Representative and Co-Chair of the state’s House Utilities and Energy Committee Jon Hinck, wrote:

When we finally get down to grappling with dangerous climate disruption, all forms of non-carbon emitting power will rise…the slogan ‘No New Electric Power Generation’ cannot be our salvation, because America must decomission 1,100 coal-fired power plants…

I’ll save the Chairman the need to distance himself from my comments by adding that I do not mean to imply that Hincks is even implicitly adopting my green guerilla warfare approach, but the closing of his letter does demonstrate that he shares my sense of urgency: “Maine needs to get wind power right,” Hinck writes, “but I say, ‘Blow, baby, blow.

I venture to say that the Chairman would agree that a frenzied push for more green power — wherever, whenever, however…and fast — is not the solution. But, where there are practical, available technologies, we have to put them into wider use with urgency. For example, in the face of concerns about the effect that damming has on local ecology, hydro-power production fell precipitously during the last twenty years, both as a total percentage of renewable capacity and overall electricity capacity in the US. Big mistake! (Again, I do not speak for or mean to convey any agreement on the part of the Chairman on the specific question of hydro dams).

Will a hydro dam decimate a fish species? Should the transmission line needed to connect in a commercial scale wind farm be allowed to run through a national park’s pristine open spaces? What ARE we going to do with all that nuclear waste? Important questions all, but important things can and should be eclipsed by more important things. You don’t worry about preventing infection by sterilizing the instrument before performing an emergency tracheotomy on a patient choking to death on a chicken bone.

Given the technological hurdles, cost gaps and resource-consumption profiles of the two fastest risers during that same period (wind and solar — intermittency anyone?), we cannot make a significant shift to more renewable power as a share of overall US on-line capacity without abundantly available base-loading hydro-power capacity. Guess what? Nukes, too. Without them, you would have to build an AWFUL lot of wind and solar to have enough capacity available — discounted for intermittency unavailability — to allow load-serving entities to start shutting down their existing fossil fuel basers. Imagine the land use implications of that.

We can – and should – be sure to mitigate the ancillary environmental impacts of renewable power however and wherever possible, but we also have to come to terms with the fact that in the war against climate change, there will be some collateral damage.

[photo credit: Flickr]

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  • http://www.eco-rally.org Alex

    Good points- chicken bone comment better than the Titanic one!

  • Bob

    If people are concerned about land use they should educate themselves on the mountaintop removal practices utilized by the coal industry in WV. In those cases the land is trashed, we burn the coal in a matter of months and they move on to the next site. At least solar and wind land use keeps “giving” and doesn’t contaminate its nearby residents heavy metal runoff.