Saturday, July 25, 2009

No Free Lunch: The Hidden Hazards and Costs of Renewable Energy

Whoever first said that "there's no such a thing as a free lunch" may not have been thinking of energy, but there aren't many fields where the trade-offs and offsets come into play with such a vengeance as in energy production.

Conventional nuclear power produces radioactive waste that remains highly toxic for tens of thousands of years. Solar leaches toxic chemicals into the water during the manufacture of the panels, and a solar plant that that generates 1 Gw (1000 Mw, or the capacity of one reactor at the Braidwood Nuclear facility) requires 8 square miles of space, based on the approximately 13% efficiency of modern solar panels. Wind power is noisy, and wind turbines can throw blades, at great hazard to any humans in the vicinity. Hydroelectric dams have been known to collapse, resulting in steep death tolls and widespread devastation- the collapse of the St. Francis Dam (Los Angeles) in 1928 killed nearly 500 people, and the Teton Dam (Idaho) in 1976 collapse killed 11.

And now it appears that deep-drill geothermal projects, the kind that involve drilling into deep rock, may cause earthqakes. Altarock Geothermal, one of the many "green" energy companies in which former Vice-President Al Gore has a significant financial stake, is planning on drilling into rock in an area two hours north of San Francisco, in one of the most seismically sensitive areas of the world, and intends to use the same method that former oilman Markus O. Haring used in 2006 in Basel, Switzerland and that triggered a 3.4 M earthquake, which was followed by thousands of smaller aftershocks. Altarock knew of this earthquake but did not disclose it on the report of potential seismic impact which they were required to submit prior to being given approval.

Given that there are significant hazards attached to all methods of energy production, this particular method seems to bear outsized risks in relation to the potential energy produced, and relative to other methods. San Francisco has been the site of a few catastrophic earthquakes in the past 100 years or so, most recently the disastrous 1989 Loma Prieta, and in view of the potential for major loss of human life and widespread property damage in the event of a major tremblor, and the very real possibility that a project like this could trigger such an event, it is astonishing that California authorities would consider permitting this project anywhere near San Francisco. In fact, it seems highly inapropriate to do such a drill anywhere along the fault-riddled and densely-populated Pacific coast at all in view of the known hazard.

Such is the power of religion- and the pursuit of "green" energy has become a religion, whose tenets are not to be questioned even in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence. The central tenet of the Green religion is that we can make a painless switch to "green" solar, wind, and thermal energy with no adjustment or rearranging of our lives and industry necessary. This belief would be touching were our future well-being, and possibly the very lives of tens of millions of us, not dependent on decisions being made now regarding the future of electrical power generation, and it is chilling to consider that these decisions are being made not on the basis of known facts, but by blind faith and wishful thinking.

In view of the known downside of many forms of renewable energy, it might be wise to slow the push to replace fossil fuel with "renewables" until objective risk assessments and costs analysis comparing the various forms of energy generation are made. Some renewable sources may be ideal for large-scale power generation, while others are better for "distributed" power- that is, on an extremely small scale, such as a household. Some may be so inherently costly that there is no hope that they can provide more than a tiny fraction of our power, while others may entail hazards that are unacceptable at any level of efficiency or cost.

Most of all, we need to relearn the concept of tradeoffs and price-paying. Energy generation is and has always been expensive and fraught with risk, even in the age of cheap fossil fuels that has just passed. We are now at the threshold of another era, one in which energy will be costlier and more difficult to generate in the amounts we need to supply our swollen populations with the level of comfort and amenity now considered minimal, and we are most likely going to be confronted with many difficult choices, each of which will have an outcome that is not exactly ideal.

So, what will we choose?

Will we choose methods of power generation that are capable of generating the kind of power we will need in the amounts we need and at a cost we can afford, to power our society in the face of growing demand and the need to convert our transportation to electricity as fossil fuels deplete, even if that means we must build more coal, nuclear, or gas-fired plants?

Or will we opt for solar, wind, and thermal, which will either be much costlier, have physical hazards that we are only beginning to grasp, and will most of all be so expensive and unreliable that 50% of our population will not be able to have reliable electricity at all?

Will we continue to build coal and gas-fired plants in spite of the known depletion of coal and gas, and the known environmental hazards of coal, to the detriment of nuclear development?

Does the potential loss of life due to nuclear power compare with the certain loss of life, steeply reduced lifespans, and widespread misery and poverty that will result from reversion to pre-technological lifestyles should a large portion of our population lose access to reliable electricity?

These are the choices we will have to make, and rather soon, and we'll have to decide just how steep a price in human misery-mass impoverishment, rampant epidemics, famines, steeply reduced lifespans, and random death on a mass scale- we are willing to pay to avoid assuming the necessary risks and making the requisite difficult adjustments we will have to make to retain the life-giving technological amenity we've enjoyed for the past century.

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