Alternative Energy Is Not Always Green

The popular idea that alternative energy is always green is nonsense.  Just because it produces a smaller carbon foot print does not mean it is always ecologically friendly.  Big business has caught onto the alternative energy craze and they want to capitalize on all the free money that is available to them from you and me through various government funding like tax credits, and write offs that have been made available through our state and federal agencies!  Not that is necessarily a bad idea, we should be encouraging alternative energy that helps us all with our carbon footprint.  But what we as citizens fund should be friendly to our environment and to our ecosystems.

The people who represent the American citizen have been happy to give our hard earned money away to anyone who can come up with a plan to produce electricity that is carbon friendly, meaning it does not add to the carbon footprint of modern age society.  Sounds good on the forefront, but upon detailed examination it does not always stand up to scrutiny.  These federal and state programs are set up to encourage alternative energy at any cost.  Our government representatives, who have earned the reputation of being “in the pockets” of big business, have suddenly become interested in alternative energy in harmony with the corporate world.  Some say that only top corporations have the resources to help the United States switch over from a carbon based energy system to an alternative based energy system.  That might be true, but the fact is that we are footing the bill and there are no investment risks for these big businesses, in fact most of the monetary risk comes from all of us taxpayers!

On the surface solar, wind, geothermal, and other alternative energy sources sound like the best “green” way to reduce our dependence on oil and coal.  And in many ways they are, but unfortunately that is not the entire picture.  Ever since our government has begun to offer significant pay backs to encourage alternative energy, big business has declared an interest.  It boils down to no risk; nothing to loose.  Our legislators put forth this arrangement as a win/win opportunity.  We give big business significant tax credits and write offs and they put their significant resources into alternative energy start-up that will benefit all Americans!  Not so fast.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch (unless your Exxon or BP) and this sounds just a trite suspicious to those of us who don’t trust corporate America.

In the last two years major propositions have been put forth to use alternative energy to offset carbon dependent carbon and coal electric production.  This sounds wonderful.  How can we go wrong?  It doesn’t seem as if there could possibly be a down side to this way of thinking.  That is until we all examine all of the impacts of some of these proposals.

For example, huge solar electric production facilities have been proposed for the California desert.  And you might ask why not?  To the untrained eye it might appear to be the perfect place for putting tens of square miles of photovoltaics!  But the fact is that these desert ecosystems are unique and irreplaceable.  Putting solar energy production in these areas will use hundreds of square miles of sensitive ecosystems in locations where major electric infrastructure is not present.  Is there an alternative to where we choose to locate these systems ?  The answer is a resounding yes.  For example, California has hundreds of abandoned shopping centers, parking lots, and other urban areas that are just begging for use.  Many of these previously degraded areas have terrific exposure to the sun, and are near existing electric systems that have transmission lines, substations, and the necessary infrastructure to support solar electric generation.  These urban locations are already degraded with parking lots, buildings, and unused spaces that could easily site the proposed photovoltaic generation!  If you are really interested in what’s going on with the solar electric proposals in the California desert go to Coyote Crossing at  Chris Clarke (the person that operates this blog) is an outstanding writer and a staunch advocate for desert ecology.

Large wind systems for the production of electricity have been proposed all over the Massachusetts from the Cape Cod bay to the Berkshire Hills!  There is no doubt that some of these proposals may not only be feasible but also may be preferable.  Aesthetics aside, we have to consider and understand the fragile ecosystems that are in place before we propose to destroy them.  Recently a large electric facility has been proposed in the northern Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts.  The large wind power facility is proposed in a small town of about 1800 people situated in the northern parts of this high terrain near the Vermont Border.  The facility would be sited on a tall hill top not too far from the center of town.  Each tower would be in the vicinity of 425 feet high.  Clearing an entire mountain top to host the turbines and roads to access the turbines will change the character of this rural town.  How much electricity will it produce?  As proposed if 20 turbines would be put into place only 1/16th of one percent of the states electric needs would be produced, and that is utilizing the most glowing estimates of predicted electrical output.  The trade off is steady noise for both wildlife and humans, the death of thousands of migrating birds and bats each year, and other potentially major health threats and ecosystem disruptions.  I’m wondering if anyone is thinking about converting the abandoned coal regions of West Virginia and the surrounding states for commercial wind farms.  At these locations whole mountains have been deforested, and it seems like a logical place to put a wind farm if there is enough wind.  These areas have already been devastated by the coal mining industry, but maybe the fact that they have taken off the tops of the mountains would mean less wind and Less than ideal wind power production.

Several large Biomass electric production facilities have been proposed in Massachusetts.  Again, investors are counting on tax dollars to build these facilities, and this means little or no risk to those who would make money from these projects.  Biomass electric production relies on burning large amounts of wood, primarily forest products, to operate the steam generators that produce electricity.  The promoters claim it is a green alternative energy.  They claim that it does not add to the modern carbon cycle.  That may be true.  But given it is only about 21% efficient there seems to be much better uses for this valuable resource, like heating for instance.  A modern biomass heating system sized to heat a large institution can be a very effective method of energy use.  In fact these systems can reach well over 80% efficiency!   The biggest problem with biomass electric production is the sheer volume of wood that a plant can consume.  The plant proposed in Greenfield, MA could consume 500,000 tons of wood per year.  That is about half a million cords.  What’s worse is that four or five of these biomass plants have been proposed state wide.  Even a conservative estimate of 2 million cords of wood per year sounds down right significant.  Thousands and thousands of acres of forested land might be heavily thinned or clear cut.  This will have a major impact on wildlife, especially in the rural areas of the state where the forests are found.  Black bears, wild turkeys, fisher, and other animals that were nearly extirpated from the state due to he 19th century unregulated clearing will once again be threatened.  Worse, not all of the wood will come from local resources.  Moving large amounts of wood from region to region could aid the spread of the emerald ash borer and Asian long horned beetle that threaten the entire hardwood community of New England.  Biomass can also be a polluter of the air.  One of these biomass projects is proposed in Massachusetts northern Connecticut River Valley where air quality is deemed poor by the US Environmental Protection Agency do to valley being surrounded by high hills trapping unclean air and creating a very bad health situation for those with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other pulmonary cardio vascular diseases.

And while we are proposing all of these “new” alternative energy sources we are dismantling existing dams where, perhaps, hydroelectric generators could be retrofitted to help with our non-carbon electric production.  Not that our streams shouldn’t run freely, but one has to consider the possibilities when weighing the odds of new destruction versus using an existing impediment to the ecosystem.

So what do we do?  Do we just keep the status quo and live with global warming as the result of fossil fuel electric production?  The answer is a clear no.  There are alternatives to the alternatives, and that is what we should be considering.

The first step is the forgotten mantra of energy conservation!  Each and every year we use about 5% to 15% more electricity.  Your legislators will tell you, and I know I have contacted them, that an expanding economy requires more electric usage.  This is nothing but pure unadulterated hogwash.  Nearly every expert agrees that we could easily consume 15% to 20% less electricity by mandating simple conservation measures.  Our goal should be to use at least 33% less energy.  Driving our cars a lot less, turning way down the thermostat in our homes or heating our homes with alternative methods, using less hot water, and using less of everything electric, particularly electronic devices, would give us a great beginning to lessening our addiction to energy use.  We can all think of many things in our personal lives that would lessen our energy use.  We simply need to act on these thoughts and make them a reality. While we are speaking of conservation we should not neglect the human population issue.  Our world is overpopulated with human beings.  We are the organism that is overusing our resources.  For thousands of years humans have assumed that the planet’s resources were there for our use without any regard for replacing these resources.  We now know that the planet does not have infinite resources, in fact, because of our past transgressions our natural resources are very limited.  There seems to be a simple formula relating human population and natural resource consumption.  In the near future humans will deplete the essential resources of our planet, the most critical of which is fresh water. Without these resources we will perish.  It is as simple as that.  Hopefully everyone gets the connection between human population and energy conservation.

The next step is governmental, and so I have little hope this would be enacted without a lot of pressure from you and I (and other average citizens).  On both a federal and state level we need to conduct a serious inventory of our potential alternative energy supplies and study each one to assess their impact on the environment.  A simple thought no doubt, but the fact is that this has never been done in any coordinated way.  We need to develop a state and federal clearinghouse of all potential alternative energy sites and their potential impacts on our environment.  These studies would ultimately lead to the prioritization of our energy alternatives and assess their potential not only for reducing carbon emissions but for potentially harmful impacts on our environments and ecosystems.  A clearinghouse such as this would allow us to weigh all of the impacts and prioritize areas for alternative energy development.

One of the best ways to reduce our carbon footprint is by installing an alternative energy system at the home or farm level.  These systems are generally eco friendly, can reduce utility bills for a family or small business, and contribute positively to our energy crisis.  If there were solar collectors on every roof in the United States that receives a daily dose of sun it would go a long way in reducing our dependence of fossil burning fuels.  Most of these systems feed directly into the electric grid.  Individuals are paid by the utility companies for their electric production at generally a wholesale rate.  This is practical in that small systems do not have to store the electricity in inefficient battery banks that are costly to maintain and replace. These systems can represent a sizeable investment and may not be affordable for everyone even with the generous tax credits that are presently offered.  It is certainly worth investigating.  Depending on your site solar, wind, geothermal, or micro-hydro might be an option for the individual property owner or small business.  It’s always worth investigating.

The bottom line is this.  We humans have made a terrible mess of things.  We are on the verge of a cascading set of events that are unparalleled.  The last thing we need to do is make things worse by reacting without considering all the impacts of our next moves, both good and bad.

We live on a delicate planet where everything is dependent upon everything else.  This planet is tremendously resilient, but it does have its limits.  We are at the absolute edge when it comes to our thoughtless impacts on the ecosystems of the earth.  We are a reasonably intelligent species.  We may be capable of navigating through the results of our past transgressions if we walk carefully and leave behind only the minimal footprint.  We must use less energy.  We must change our energy production to truly green alternatives.  And each and every one of us must pray that we have the strength and courage to do what is right for the planet for the rest of our days on this great earth.

Written for in September 2010.

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