Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Let's get real - making energy always has an environmental impact

I just had one of those marvellous rant-inspiring moments reading a letter in which someone was complaining about the potential environmental impact of a particular energy project and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was some way we could produce energy that didn’t have any environmental impact? But there isn’t.  Not a single source of energy is completely benign.  Not solar, not wind, not nuclear, not run-of-river, not storage dam hydro, not LNG, not methane, not geothermal, not syngas, not woodpellets, not coal, not diesel, not fuel oil, not nothing, not nohow, not no-sirree.  
Birds (sometimes) fly into windmills.  Solar panels in mass arrays are a blight on the landscape.  Nuclear requires careful handling of highly toxic metals.  Run of river diverts watercourses.  So does tidal.  Dams flood forests and farmlands.  Geothermal requires holes in the ground.  LNG produces greenhouse gases.  So do coal and diesel and fuel oil and waste-to-energy technology.
If the actual production of the energy doesn’t have a significant impact, the manufacture of the machine that makes it sure does.  Solar panels and windmills are made in factories that consume energy, and are made with materials that are mined and processed and refined, and all of those activities have an environmental impact.
And even if generating the energy is relatively benign, how are you going to get it from the place where it is made to the place where it is used?  No, not via Star Trek tansporters.  It’s transmission lines, pipelines, tankers, or trucks, and they all have environmental impacts.
So get over it, people.  Either turn out the lights and park your cars and turn off your laptops, or start talking in terms of choices among competing alternatives, and balances and trade-offs.  Because that’s what it’s about.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about impacts.  We should.  But we have got to stop pretending that we can sustain ourselves without at least some impact on the environment.  
I know there a few folks who really do want us to turn the lights off.  Completely off.  Good luck with that.  There are other folks who are thinking about new ways of making energy that might have little or no impact.  May they succeed sooner rather than later.  Most of the rest of us are generally trying to conserve and reduce our impact, although it’s easier to talk about it than do.  But let’s not fool ourselves - and let’s not let anyone else - whether politician, pundit, industry or NGO spokesperson - fool us.  We can reduce our footprint, but almost everything we do that requires energy has an impact somewhere, somehow, on the fish and the air, and the water, and the trees, and the view and all the other things we hold dear.
It all comes at a cost.  Let's debate our options realistically, recognizing that these are not easy decisions, and there is no free pass or way around the problem of how we can sustain our economy, our culture, our society without at least some cost or consequence for the environment.  Perhaps the answer is to repair faster than we harm?  Fine, but at least let's not pretend we can have it all without impact.

The next time you hear someone express their concerns about the environmental impact of a particular energy project, make sure to ask them where the heck else they plan on getting the energy they need.

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