By Stephen Tuttle | Feb. 23, 2019
We are determined to get ourselves some “green” energy. There is legislation in Congress and in various state legislatures. Cities and states are setting goals for percentages of power generated from renewable sources by certain times.
Noble objectives all. But it won't be that easy to replace fossil fuels or the infrastructure and economy they drive.
The country might be thinking green, but the fossil fuel industry continues to be a powerful economic force and political player. Not to mention millions of employees being paid more than $1 trillion annually — and paying billions in taxes.
The industry has a vast infrastructure to which federal, state, and local governments have contributed significantly in the form of various incentives. There are somewhere between 115,000 and 150,000 gas stations here (no one seems to know for sure) and more than two million miles of various oil and gas pipelines, the most extensive such network in the world.
While we talk about going green, we've reduced environmental regulations, expanded areas available for oil/gas exploration, and continue expanding production. We're now the leading oil producer in the world.
So, no, it won't be easy breaking a stranglehold more than a century old. But even if we ignore climate science, we already know extracting, transporting, and processing fossil fuels are dangerous and environmentally destructive. Burning those fuels creates tiny particulates that are harmful to our health. The World Health Organization (WHO) attributes 7 million deaths annually to particulate pollution, including 71,000 here in the U.S.
That leaves us with solar and wind as viable options — hydroelectric having lost its pollution-free charm. Both come with their own issues that will slow down their progress.
Solar, for all its appeal, isn't so clean prior to installation. The manufacture of solar panels and solar cells — China makes 60 percent of the panels and 71 percent of the cells — utilizes a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including acids, solvents, and known carcinogens. Breathing the inevitable silicon dust isn't so good for the workers, either.
The manufacturing, material transportation, installation, and maintenance all come with their own carbon footprint. And solar panels have a shelf life and need to be decommissioned, dismantled, and replaced, adding to that footprint.
There is also a land-use issue associated with large-scale solar. The largest solar array in the world, in India, will produce enough electricity to power 150,000 homes when at full capacity. But the array covers nearly six square miles. We'll need way more land, and that means environmental concerns like habitat degradation, migratory corridors, flood plains ... anything covering many square miles is going to have issues.
Despite all of that, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) puts solar's overall contribution to pollution at less than a third that of natural gas and barely 10 percent of coal.
Which brings us to wind power, which is even cheaper and greener than solar but has been far more controversial.
Those turbines and towers produce their own pollutants during manufacturing, transportation, and installation. (We've not yet found any power source that doesn't somehow contribute to air, water, or land pollution.)
Wind turbines have another issue; they don't exactly fit into the landscape on which they're placed. Almost every location proposed has encountered opposition based on their appearance, intrusion into the landscape, shadow casting, noise, and bird strikes.
But, once operational, they produce the cheapest energy of all. Maine, despite a relative handful of fervent opponents, including ex-governor Paul LePage, now gets about 17 percent of its power from wind.
But Maine's power needs are relatively small, and the country's are enormous. The temptation is to think in terms of huge projects, and that could be an impediment to going green. Massive solar arrays and wind farms aren't the only solution. Those technologies work just as well, and maybe better on smaller scales.
Smaller communities don't necessarily need to be grid-dependent. They can make huge inroads in their renewable energy goals by encouraging smaller solar and wind farms designed to power a few thousands, or tens of thousands of homes, instead of millions,
Even better would be each home with its own solar, wind, geothermal, hydrogen fuel cell — or some combination — built into new construction, so no grid is needed at all. The economies of scale are nearing a point at which that will be entirely possible.
Both solar and wind technologies continue improving, becoming more efficient and producing more power, greener and cheaper. Their use, or a yet-developed renewable source, is inevitable and will save lives and, perhaps, the planet. But it will require patience, political will, leadership that understands science, and likely a couple generations rather than a couple decades. The steps we now take, while critical, are just the first miles of a marathon.
Fossil fuels' days are numbered, but it's still a very big number.