The Possible Negatives of Clean Energy

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In November 2009, Scientific American – with an eye on then upcoming Copenhagen Summit – published a manifesto piece titled "A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030."

It was a bold vision charting out how to get no less than all of the world’s energy requirements through wind, water and solar power (WWS.) Eschewing even nuclear power, the authors had an uncompromising vision considering "only technologies that have near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants over the entire life cycle, including construction, operation and decommissioning."

The piece went into some detail about how to overcome the hurdles that will no doubt present themselves along the way. The authors went as far as to provide projections of the availability of metals that would be required in turbine gearboxes. Smartly they also anticipated and provided for the possibility that "the U.S. could be trading dependence on Middle Eastern oil for dependence on Far Eastern metals."

I am no climate skeptic – but even I found myself believing the plan a bit too far-fetched. Not because it wasn’t desirable, but because it was unrealisable.

I also forgot all about it, until I found this letter by Paul Roetling of Grand Island, NY to the editors in this month’s edition of Scientific American:

I found it surprising that in “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi do not mention the effects of the suggested energy sources on climate. The authors propose to absorb about six terawatts of energy from about 60 terawatts available in the wind, or about 10 percent of its total energy. Because the winds, at least near the U.S., usually flow around highs or lows, where the speed and related Coriolis force tend to maintain the pressure difference, I can easily envision that absorbing the energy will change the rate at which the pressure centers collapse. How this would change the weather, I do not know, but it must make a change to give us some of the energy. Possibly, the weather change would be an improvement, but as a believer in Murphy’s Law, I would be surprised. About 100 years ago dumping garbage into the ocean was justified because the oceans were infinite compared to the effect, so no one calculated how much was allowable. Let’s be smarter this time! Why not do the calculations before we cause more problems?

Paul’s astute observations lends weight to my own belief that we have to reduce our energy consumption as a species rather than just pin our hopes on finding alternatives to all our energy needs.

All of our choices, no matter how carefully we consider and plan for them, will have externalities. Some of them we can surmise – most of them we cannot. Not until it’s too late, ie.

[Original pic by Insight Imaging: John A Ryan Photography]

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