Not all renewables are created equal
Can we all agree that the current energy economy is fundamentally toxic to nature and people? Can we agree that there is no more important task than building a new energy economy, one that supports flourishing human and natural communities? Can we agree that the future energy economy should be powered by renewable sources, not fossil fuels?
One would think that every reasonable person (I’m looking at you, members of Congress) would agree with these propositions. Virtually every energy and climate change activist would immediately say yes. But move past truisms and get into specifics of just how to advance toward this energy future, and consensus breaks down. Remaking the energy economy cannot be accomplished overnight and thus there will be disagreements over strategies and tactics among activists.
In every social change movement, there is friction between incremental reformers and advocates for radical change. Internecine squabbling is inevitable. So perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that some “green power” activists have gotten riled up — in a negative way — by our new book ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, centerpiece of Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Reality Campaign. But it has been a little discouraging.
To be fair, overall reaction to the book and just-launched campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. But a small percentage of the folks who read through ENERGY, which depicts all facets of energy production and transport, get bent out of shape by a handful of the book’s roughly 200 photos. Some NGOs we expected to be natural allies have declined to distribute free copies to their activist lists or to policy makers. Some folks have called us to complain.
And just what is so offensive? In a sequence of images showing landscapes that have been aesthetically and ecologically diminished (OK, let’s be honest — places that have been trashed) by the insatiable rush for more energy resources, we included photos of a concentrated solar plant and a wind power development.
An accompanying headline employed the phrase “energy blight.” Cue howls of outrage from some readers.
Was the headline accurate? Yes. Was it intentionally provocative? Yes. Was it a tactical blunder to include industrial-scale renewables in a photo series with coal plants, tar-sands development, and the shattered hulk of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station? I don’t think so, but the point is debatable, and you can judge for yourself.
Some folks don’t want to have a conversation about the whole energy picture — including the significant ecological costs of renewables — but hope to create broader societal support for “green” energy by only talking about the upsides. Discussing the downsides of Big Wind and Corporate Solar only strengthens the fossil-fuel lobbies that are hell-bent on cooking the planet, goes their argument.
I’ve had affronted listeners to radio interviews call in and complain that I was suggesting some kind of moral equivalence between wind power and coal. Not so. I’ve flown over Appalachia and seen the missing mountains. The coal trains now run 24/7 through the ranch my great-grandfather homesteaded on the Wyoming prairie. Coal is, as David Roberts frequently says, the enemy of the human race. I get it.
But it is inarguable that all large-scale energy infrastructure destroys habitat, whether it is hardwood forests cleared for ridgeline wind power development on Lowell Mountain in Vermont, or Mojave Desert vegetation displaced by concentrated solar generating facilities. Big, river-killing dams can produce lots of power with low greenhouse gas emissions. Although I hope we won’t be lured into these kinds of false solutions, we may, as a society, choose to accept these trade-offs to accelerate the adoption of renewables in the overall energy mix, but we should understand and discuss them as part of a democratic conversation about our energy future.
I’ve found that some green power advocates want to keep it superficial (fossil fuels = bad, renewables = good) rather than digging into tougher questions about appropriate scale and centralized, corporate control of energy resources, including renewables. I am not unsympathetic to the arguments of well-meaning activists who say we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the “less unsustainable,” particularly if systemic overhaul of the energy system is indeed their ultimate objective. I’m far less sympathetic, however, to techno-utopians who seem to think embracing every “green” energy technology, from biofuels to wave power to concentrated solar plants, is going to allow humanity to keep growing our numbers and economic output without destroying the ecosphere.
The editorial team that produced ENERGY had an overarching goal — to promote energy literacy and draft a vision for a future energy economy. The characteristics we articulate are mirror opposites of the status quo: community-scaled and distributed, not big and centralized. Resilient, not brittle. Conservation and efficiency first, not “drill baby drill” or “build baby build.” We envision a future energy economy that supports wild nature, not corporate profit; that fosters beauty and biodiversity, rather than spreading ugliness and ecological damage; that promotes health for nature and people, not perpetual economic growth. And of course is anchored by renewables, not fossil fuels.
Simply checking off that last box and ignoring the other criteria is not sufficient for rapid progress toward dismantling the status quo. Issues of scale, ownership, indigenous rights, and corporate influence over political decision-making are heating up everywhere that large-scale renewables are proposed, from the mega-dams of Brazil and Chilean Patagonia to wind power development in southern Mexico.
To be sure, finding a new way of conserving, using, and deploying energy resources equitably is crucial. Avoiding superficial thinking and truly developing our individual and collective energy literacy is a start toward building the distributed, resilient, nature-friendly energy economy that we seek. Can we all agree on that?