Monday, April 03, 2006

The Reality of Renewable Energy and the Deep-Pockets Who Want to Stop Cape Wind

If you think of global warming as perhaps the greatest environmental threat, and renewable energy as the key to moderating the worst affects of global warming, then it’s hard to consider the amount of money being spent to stop the Cape Wind turbine project as anything less than shameful.

It’s also symptomatic of a refusal to acknowledge that if we’re going to pursue renewable energy for real, we’re going to have to get a lot closer to our energy sources.

The basis for my first assertion is a story in the Boston Globe over the weekend about a fundraising effort by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The basis for my second assertion is a month-old post on the Energy Outlook blog.

First,Cape Wind. Earlier this year, someone at the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound slipped up and put an internal fundraising document on the group’s website. Although it was eventually taken offline, the document made its way to the Boston Globe.

While the reporter thought it was newsworthy that fundraisers who ask potential donors for large sums of money try to be polite and flattering (the opposite is rarely successful), to me the amazing thing is just how large the sums are that a few deep-pockets have given. Here’s the first paragraph of the Globe story:

William I. Koch, the yachting enthusiast, donated $500,000. Paul Fireman, the former chief of Reebok, gave $250,000. Michael Egan, the son of the founder of EMC Corp., kicked in $150,000.

While it may be true that some people who want to stop Cape Wind are concerned with the potential of the turbines to damage traditional fisheries in Nantucket Sound or to kill migrating birds, I doubt that those concerns are what keep Koch and Fireman and Egan awake at night. I’d be surprised if they were worried about much more than the view from their houses.

Views are important, as are fishermen and birds. But, when presented with projects that will help moderate the affects of global warming, some traditional environmental concerns might have to go to tha back of the line. Which brings me to my second point. Renewable energy isn’t like burning coal or LNG, or drilling for oil, or generating nuclear power. It requires smaller decentralized generating facilities, not large, widely-scattered mines and wells and power plants. In other words, it probably will require us to accept energy-generating facilities in our neighborhoods.

As I said, I’m borrowing this argument from the Energy Outlook blog and its author, Geoffrey Styles. He wrote an eye-opening post about a month ago that succinctly explains the point:

… part of the problem here arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of renewable energy. In a nutshell, the inherent properties of fossil fuels have spoiled us and made it difficult to grasp the compromises associated with other energy sources. …

We're accustomed to sourcing our energy far from where most of us live, in oil fields, gas wells and coal mines all over the world--but typically distant from urban concentrations. The portion we're used to seeing around us is just distribution infrastructure--power lines, gas stations, and the occasional pipeline or refinery. Renewable energy on a large scale will change that situation utterly. We will go from a world of energy-at-a-distance to energy-all-around-us.

… If we wanted [wind] to replace all of the fossil fuels used in US power generation, it would require over 300,000 of these [wind turbine] installations.

… Nor am I singling out wind. Do the math for solar, geothermal, wave power, or anything else you like, and you'll see that, to have a material impact at the scale the human race uses energy, we will need lots of them, everywhere….

Now, you might read this as an attempt to make renewable energy look impossible, or at least extremely unattractive. Far from it. It's meant as a reality check. Opting to make renewables a major part of our future energy supply requires setting aside our tender sensibilities and being confronted on a daily basis with the real-world foundation of the energy-consuming pyramid atop which we sit. Unless, of course, the goal is only enough renewable energy to make us feel good, but not enough to matter.

It’s hard for the wealthy to set aside their tender sensibilities. They worked hard, they can afford the luxury of an extravagant house, so why should they be forced to look at something unpleasant? Why should they cut back on their energy use? They didn’t make a lot of money so they can make sacrifices. The McMansions of New Canaan and Greenwich, with their 10,000-square-feet of living space that needs to be heated and cooled, and their half-acre of lawn that needs to be mowed and leaf-blowed and fertilized, are filled with people who consider themselves environmentalists. So are the islands off Cape Cod. But there are better ways to give away money than to stop a renewable energy project.


Blogger Sam said...

Hey Tom thanks for the excellent blog and keep it going.

You probably going to think I'm absolutely nuts, but to a fisherman such structures as reefs and wind turbines will actually hold the schools of fish much better. We love them!

Perhaps there is something about the politics of supplying power to Nantucket that the complete story is missing, since having a few wind turbines on the horizon on only crystal clear days is NOT the problem.

But I digress. It is like the old Doors song, if you built it, they [the marine life] will come. Nice to have some green power, too. Sam

11:31 PM  

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