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Energy and the Environment

Energy and the Environment

I went to an interesting event last week, the first of a four-part series:  Discourses on Nature and Society.  The discussion by a star panel of energy and environment experts was titled Energy for the Next 20 Years: Protecting the Environment and Meeting Our Demands.  The series is being cosponsored by the venerable NY Academy of Sciences and the Nature Conservancy.  The NY Academy of Sciences has been around since 1817.

The panelists were led by David Roberts, the top environmental blog Grist’s top writer.  (If, for some reason, you’ve not checked out Grist, please get on it right away.)  Roberts is as smart in person as he is in his writing.  (I have had, to toot my own horn for a sec, an article at Grist:  Biochar as the new black gold.)

Roberts laid out the premise that we are dealing with three fundamental problems:  (a) rising energy demand, much of it coming from the rapidly emerging economies of Asia and elsewhere, (b) stress thereby on limited traditional energy resources and on the environment from which they are being extracted, and (c) climate change.  He posited that our energy therefore needs to be plentiful, low carbon and not requiring a lot of land or pressuring the environment.

Each of the panelists then jumped in, covering an area of their expertise, before launching into a more extended cross discussion and the Q&A.  Jesse Jenkins, the Director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute, fleshed out some of the issues relative to energy demand, talked about energy poverty – that billions in the developing world lack access to electricity – and that as we bring power to the rural populations that lack it, and as the burgeoning global middle classes start buying cars, air conditioners and plasma TVs for the first time, we must also be reducing our energy intensity.  (This is defined by the IPCC as “…the ratio of energy use to economic or physical output.  At the national level, energy intensity is the ratio of total primary energy use or final energy use to Gross Domestic Product. At the activity level, one can also use physical quantities in the denominator, e.g. litre fuel/vehicle km.”)  In simpler terms:  bang for the buck.  Jenkins underscored the idea that fossil fuels need to be made obsolete, but that energy needs to be cheap.

Jeff Opperman is the Senior Freshwater Scientist for the Nature Conservancy.  His principal brief has been to look at improving hydropower’s sustainability.  He echoed the need for cheap, decarbonized energy but with an eye to protecting natural resources.  He reminded us that even though the perception on hydro’s negative environmental impact is generally that it floods lands upstream from the dams, that there are also very serious concerns regarding its downstream effects on fisheries and agriculture.  To optimize, then, the environmental benefits of traditional hydropower, planning and siting are fundamental.

Another Nature Conservancy leader, Joe Fargione, their  Lead Scientist for North America, had some noteworthy things to say about biofuels.  (In my classes, I cite Dr. Fargione’s critical work on how biofuel production exacerbates climate change through the land-use changes that it engenders.)  He noted the other night that 35% of American corn goes to offset 6% of our oil for transportation – not a good tradeoff.  (I mentioned Amory Lovins’s new project and book, Reinventing Fire, here recently.  Lovins and his team at the Rocky Mountain Institute have a lot to say about the role of biofuels in transportation going forward.  I’m using Reinventing Fire in my Clean Tech class this Spring.  Lovins, for my money, has the answers to the panel’s questions regarding how best to optimize energy while reducing environmental impacts – with nearly maximum bang for the buck it turns out.)

Now Stewart Brand is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.  Here’s a guy, a visionary, who founded the Whole Earth Catalogue, a project that “…pushed grassroots direct power—tools and skills.”  Brand himself said famously:  “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  So how do you get from that to shilling for nuclear power?  Damned if I know.  As I have noted here many times, and told Brand during the Q&A at the event, nuclear power is the least godlike activity going.  In any event, the presentation that Brand gave was rife with the inaccuracies that Amory Lovins so thoroughly debunked in his paper, “Four Nuclear Myths,” among them that solar and wind use too much land.  Brand, talking with me later, mentioned the “nuclear renaissance,” yet another myth.  Nuclear power is running on fumes.

Brand trotted out a new bit of nonsense:  that storage of spent nuclear fuel rods is safe in the U.S. because we use dry storage in casks.  First, that’s not even close to true.  If it were, as it is in Germany, I’d feel safer.  However, as we saw in Japan, most spent fuel rods are stored in pools of water where, if you have a loss of that water, very bad things happen quickly.  In the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, “Spent fuel pools contain more highly radioactive fuel than the reactor cores. And the spent fuel pools at all U.S. nuclear plants are located outside the reactor containment structure.”  Or, as the veteran nuclear policy analyst, Robert Alvarez, notes here:  “Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements. Some are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships.”

Another myth is that renewable energy can’t get the job done.  Actually, that’s nothing better than a Big Lie.  But the bottom line, as I tried to point out during the Q&A, is that the embrace of nuclear power materially slows down our efforts to stop climate change and achieve sustainability because it drains resources, energy, expertise, and focus from building out the renewably powered distributed generation infrastructure that will give us at least a chance of overcoming the climate crisis.  Amory Lovins makes this point abundantly in his blockbuster paper and another panelist, Arne Jungjohann, articulated this beautifully during the Q&A.

Jungjohann, Director for the Environment and Global Dialogue Program in the Washington office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, had plenty of useful things to say about renewables and DG, particularly in Germany.  The Germans really get it, not only on shuttering their nuclear power plants, but on promoting clean tech:  they have the technology, the industry, the policy, the political will and the track record to show that clean tech means jobs.  The Green Party and the Social Democrats, powerful forces in German politics, want to see a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050.  Germany, has had visionaries like the late Hermann Scheer, and has canny businessmen like Peter Löscher, the head of Siemens, one of the world’s industrial powerhouses, leading the way.  I quoted Löscher here:  “The green revolution has started and by 2020, green technology will have surpassed the car industry as well as the engineering sector in Germany.”  As Jungjohann pointed out at the event, Germany installed nearly double the amount of solar PV in December as the U.S. did in all of 2011.

We’ve simply got to accelerate some of the breathtaking progress that has been taking place, not only in Germany, but throughout the world, on renewables, DG, green building, and as a number of panelists noted, smart urban planning and mass transit, and, at the end of the day, reduce our consumption to sustainable levels.  Eat a salad today and turn out the damn lights when you leave the room.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change