We have an energy problem. At the end of the day, no energy source is free. We all want energy that is readily available, reliable, and without external costs. We want to be able to cheaply power our HDTV, our car, and our furnace. We want our supply chains to be affordable, so prices will be low. In short, we want the magic elixir that will allow us to carry on in our current configuration without having to change.
Unfortunately, we are painfully unaware of the external costs of the energy we produce. Gwyneth Cravens, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, spoke about the cost of coal:
“But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more – it’s a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon – radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there’s enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235. So the – and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks – you know, you don’t see the soot anymore so much, but you see – or you don’t – what you don’t see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they’re combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease. So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can’t make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so – and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide. We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity – that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don’t have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.”
In Japan, we are seeing at Fukushima Daiichi what a 9.0 Earthquake and a massive tsunami can do to the best laid plans of mice and men. Opposition to wind turbines remains strong here in New England. In Rhode Island, where I live, there is ongoing opposition to a Liquid Natural Gas terminal in Mt. Hope Bay. More broadly, opposition is growing to hydrofracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and across the country. Large scale renewable energy projects are challenged by environmentalists (like the large scale solar project in California) and by parents (opposition to the construction of high-power transmission lines). In individual communities, wealthy homeowners fight the construction of wind turbines and solar panels.
Does anyone else see this? We live under the myth that there is a cheap source of energy without cost out there. Our gasoline, which we import mostly, must be defended by the Fifth Fleet (in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against the Sunni king) and heavily subsidized. The greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles are not without cost, as much as denialists would like to believe. Because we remain under the spell of the cheap energy myth, some of us remain willing to accept the costs of hydrofracking (water) and coal (see above quote). We compare the cost of renewable energy to the cost of natural gas and coal, and ignore the external costs, and say that renewable energy is too expensive. Unfortunately, our cheap energy is simply not sustainable.
If we were smart, we would realize that 1) there is no perfect, cheap, elixir out there. We need to take into account the external costs and start planning a smart, renewable energy future. We would also realize that 2) NIMBY is the enemy of planning a smart energy future. People want to plug in their laptop or their iron, and remain ignorant of where that power comes from and how it arrives at their outlet. People want their homes to be just the right temperature in the summer and winter, and not recognize the cost of doing so. People want to live in the suburbs, and commute long distances to work, to karate practice, to visit Disneyland. Yet, people get upset when a wind turbine goes up, or when talk of a new transmission line starts. NIMBY is simply not sustainable. If we truly understood the costs of the energy we use, we would use less of it, we would be much more efficient, we would plan for the long term instead of just one quarter ahead.
What do we need? We need a smart grid, decentralized power generation, a diverse mixture of renewable energy, state of the art nuclear power, and some fossil fuels, and above all else we need to place a price on carbon. Energy will not be cheap, but we fool ourselves if we believe it is cheap today. We need to embrace the future, instead of wishing we could return back to 1890. If we don’t of course, we will eventually fall out of the cheap energy spell, but we will start kicking ourselves for not recognizing it sooner.
A wise man once said you always double down when you are dealt eleven in Blackjack. Well, Deepwater Wind is pursuing economies of scale, and has effectively doubled down, increasing its proposed wind park from 100 to 200 turbines, lowering the cost of wind generated to 16 cents/kw. I detailed the long and complicated process of this development, here, here, and here; this study details the great potential of Atlantic offshore wind. Suffice it to say, this expansion bodes well for the approval and completion of the large-scale wind farm. Save the Bay’s Jonathan Stone, director of the largest and most prestigious environmental group in Rhode Island, supports the move. Rhode Island taxpayers will like the lower rates. This is a win-win.
The controversy surrounding a proposed high voltage transmission line in El Centro, CA, which would potentially deliver wind, solar, and geothermal energy to San Diego, is instructive on the difficulties that will surround future renewable energy development.
El Centro has 110 degrees plus temperature, high wind, and readily available geothermal resources neat the San Andreas Fault. All told, there ate 16,000 MW of potential renewable energy in the area. However, some environmentalists want the utility to forego the project and simply develop rooftop solar in San Diego. Other critics worry about the fact that existing natural gas energy will be transmitted over the same line, and that the renewable energy claims are merely a smokescreen for a government-subsidized investment that will have a large ROI.
Michael W. Howard, president and chief executive of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif., said that while the potential for exploiting renewable energy remains huge nationally, “you’ve got to get it from somewhere,” he said. “If you’re going to have renewables, you’d better love transmission.”
In the end, rooftop solar deserves development, but so does an area as resource rich as El Centro, especially with its low population. If we can’t build a transmission line in El Centro, we will certainly be unable to do it in more populated areas.
On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read. McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:
“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”
McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability. I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear. While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet. He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza. McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:
“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine. Windmills will sprout across the prairies. It will be exciting. But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match. We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”
McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust. McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:
“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project. The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale. Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”
At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government. The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.
McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food. “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I). McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition. Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.
Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner. Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change). The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face. The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives. One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to. Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future. However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.
Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences. Eaarth is out now. Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.
Life never ceases to amaze me. On Sunday, a multi-millionaire businessman, maker of the Segway motorized scooters died while riding one of his scooters – he plunged 80 feet over a limestone cliff into a river. Jimi Heselden, a former miner, died at the age of 62, with a fortune estimated at $263 Million. He was riding one of the Segway X2 offroad scooters, near his home. This reminds me that no matter how rich or powerful, no matter how permanent things seem, everything is impermanent.
If you think that is crazy, then check this out. After the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the recent explosion on another oil rig, we still look to the Oceans for oil reserves. However, the environmental group Oceana just released a report showing that offshore wind development on our Atlantic coast has more capacity and is more cost effective than drilling for oil reserves:
“On the Atlantic coast, an area targeted for expansion of oil and gas activities, offshore wind can generate nearly 30% more electricity than offshore oil and gas resources combined. In addition, wind development would cost about $36 billion less than offshore oil and gas production combined, while creating about three times as many jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuel production. Based on conservative assumptions for offshore wind and generous assumptions for offshore oil and natural gas, this study found that by investing in offshore wind on the East Coast, rather than offshore oil and gas, Americans would get more energy for less money while protecting our oceans.”
The study looks at 11 states on the Eastern seaboard, and examines how they make power now, and the capacity for offshore development. The beauty of offshore wind is that capacity sits next to major population centers along the East Coast. As this study shows, offshore wind can produce much of our electricity load:
“In addition to these obvious benefits, offshore wind potential is best where population is largely focused, and could power much of the East Coast. Delaware, Massachusetts and North Carolina could generate enough electricity from offshore wind to equal current electricity generation. Other East Coast states such as New Jersey, Virginia and South Carolina could supply 92%, 83% and 64% of their current electricity generation with offshore wind, respectively.”
Why aren’t we shifting to this outstanding resource? Right now in Rhode Island, an offshore wind development is in the works that will provide much needed jobs, as well as clean energy. However, some Rhode Island ratepayers still resist because they want to enjoy subsidized fossil power that doesn’t account for externalities like health costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the development is tied up in Court. The state utility commission finally approved the deal in August but the Attorney General appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court.
In any rate it seems high time to start development of offshore wind. As this timely report shows, wind power is more cost effective and more plentiful than oil reserves on the Atlantic Coast, and doesn’t have the costly externalities of fossil fuels. Our grandchildren will thank us.
- Huge wind energy potential off Eastern U.S. -study (reuters.com)
While the Rhode Island politicos bicker about whether and how to construct an offshore windfarm, and Rhode Island ratepayers insist that they prefer diesel generators and coal, externalities and all, China is showing what a clean-tech engine really looks like.
In July, the 102 MW Donghai Bridge Wind Farm went online and transmitted good clean energy to the mainland from the East China Sea. China was the first, outside Europe, and they are not slowing down. They have several other farms under construction. In the next 3 years, they plan to add 514MW of offshore wind energy. In the next 20 years they plan to add 30GW. China is actually making this happen – right now.
Wake up Rhode Island! Do you want 21st Century clean-tech jobs at Quonset Point? Or, do you hope those textile mills will suddenly come back into style?
- Chinese Offshore Development Blows Past U.S. (nytimes.com)
Last night in Boston, my friend Ryan and I were talking about how the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries are ripe for reform. Unfortunately, there are few examples of sustainable companies to use as a model. Aveda stands out in that regard.
In May, the Sustainability Officer of Aveda spoke at the Marlboro College Graduate School to MBA in Sustainable Management students. Aveda, founded in 1978 with the goal of providing beauty industry professionals with high performance, botanically based products that would be better for service providers and their guests, as well as for the planet, manufactures professional plant-based hair care, skin care, makeup, and lifestyle products.
Aveda stands out as a company doing the right thing. First of all, they use plant based materials as much as possible, and source as much organic material as is available. Second, they do a life cycle analysis of all packaging, with the goal of minimizing packaging, maximizing the use of post-consumer recycled materials, using materials that can be and are recyclable, and designing packaging so that the individual parts can be separated for recycling. Third, Aveda now purchases all of its power from wind sources. Aveda also parters with their salons to engage with their local communities, and with the communities that they source their materials from. In short, the industry would do well to model themselves after Aveda.
Unfortunately, as Annie Leonard shows here, the industry is not following Aveda’s lead. In fact, the industry is a disgrace. The Environmental Working Group just released the results of a study on sunscreen. I was shocked to learn that the sunscreen I had used contained oxybenzone, which can cause developmental/reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, allergies/immunotoxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation, and biochemical or cellular level changes. As Annie says, toxics in, toxics out. We use many products with ingredients that we know are harmful, even carcinogens. In fact, the beauty industry is not sufficiently regulated. Think about the shampoo, the conditioner, the soap, the deodorant, the suncreen, the moisturizer, the detergents, and the countless other products you use, and you get a sense of how pervasive all of these chemicals really are.
Until we demand that our government really screen the chemicals used in these products, and until we demand that words like natural and organic have real meaning when it comes to beauty and lifestyle products, we will all be putting ourselves at risk. Aveda has had the right idea since 1978; it is time we all started to listen.
By the way, if you have not seen the original Story of Stuff, I encourage you to check it out.