Posts Tagged ‘energy efficiency’

‘Coal or nuclear?’ is the wrong clean energy mentality

April 13, 2011

Have you ever listened to an argument for a while and thought to yourself, “You know, both sides are missing the point entirely”? That’s how I feel when the coal and nuclear camps fight about which side is a cleaner form of energy.

You’ve got articles like this one that claim that coal is more dangerous than nuclear and articles like this one applauding how safe nuclear power is, and yet no one addresses the bigger problem: high levels of energy consumption are what breed the high demand for different types of power. Instead of focusing most of our efforts on fulfilling a current standard of energy needs, why aren’t we more vocal about and focused on energy efficiency? Instead of building more power plants to meet the status quo, we should be looking for ways to reduce the need for those extra power plants by making our energy go further. Individuals should be reducing extraneous energy consumption too, but I’m focusing on the bigger entities and how they’re spending their time and money and brainpower.

The argument between nuclear and coal seems like a dead end because both are dangerous in different ways. Admittedly, I agree that coal power is more dangerous than nuclear power. Coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead; acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines leave waterways running orange with excess iron, aluminum, and acid; mountaintop removal mining leaves toxins in the air and water, not to mention leaving people’s homes wide open to extreme flooding.

But I don’t want this to be interpreted as a free pass to nuclear — nuclear isn’t crystal clean. The difference is that coal is guaranteed to be constantly polluting the atmosphere, endangering communities nearby and often leaving coal miners to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions, so the flow of danger and the actual negative consequences are constant and expected. Nuclear is regularly lauded as a safe alternative, but the problem is that when nuclear malfunctions, the results can be instantly catastrophic. It’s a constant, predictable stream of pollution with coal versus the possibility for a gargantuan amount of pollution if things go awry with nuclear (e.g. current worries in Japan about high radiation levels in food and radiation seeping into the groundwater under the plant). And of course, there’s the problem of where to store all that radioactive nuclear waste.

Anyway, commentators solely focusing on which is the cleaner energy source are missing the point. It shouldn’t be about which new type of power plant we build, but about how we can harness energy so that we don’t have to build new power plants. Energy efficiency breakthroughs are definitely still happening, but it’s disheartening that they aren’t more salient in the clean energy discussion. So yeah, nuclear power currently might be the lesser of two evils, but that isn’t where we should be setting the bar, and “coal or nuclear?” isn’t the question we should be asking.

Solution-based environmentalism is key for true change

May 6, 2010

A little more than two weeks ago, an oil rig off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico exploded, leaving 11 crew members dead and tens of thousands of gallons of oil leaking into the water and creeping toward the coastline. Some environmentalists are using this catastrophe as a way to end offshore oil drilling, but I’m with Paul Roberts — our dependence on oil is too strong to simply quit cold turkey.

Roberts, author of The End of Oil, was interviewed by Grist recently and explained how he didn’t want environmentalists to exploit this tragedy because demanding an end to offshore drilling was not realistic or feasible without an alternative lined up:

The environmental movement is really going to need to come up with a more pragmatic set of gestures than “let’s stop all offshore drilling.” Well, OK. What do you replace that oil with? And how much will it cost? And who will bear the costs? And who’s in charge of the transition — government or the private sector? Of course, once you start asking those questions, you sound like an oil industry flak, but until you answer those questions, or at least ask them, you’re not much better.

This attitude is unfortunately common in the environmental movement — calls to end detrimental environmental activities without any ideas for alternatives. Some alternatives are quite simple and common sensical: instead of using child slave labor to harvest your cocoa, hire employees of an appropriate age and pay them an appropriate wage and provide proper working conditions, for instance limiting their work hours per week so they aren’t working 14-hour days for six days a week.

When it comes to energy, however, the alternatives aren’t as clearcut even though solution-based environmentalism is key. We are a country that relies on energy to function — to power our homes, our cars, and our cities. It’s completely awful that a large portion of that comes from coal and oil, but we can’t unplug ourselves overnight. We need to use this realism as motivation to find replacements, alternatives, and supplements.

At my alma mater, Ohio University, students launched a Coal-Free Campus Campaign that demanded that the university close its coal-fired Lausche heating plant, which is where OU gets most of its heat. Although creating awareness is great, OU Sustainability Director Sonia Marcus made a good point:

“We don’t have an alternative (to using Lausche),” Sonia Marcus, OU’s sustainability coordinator, said. “We wouldn’t be able to heat the campus unless we were to buy tens of thousands of space heaters.”

She contended that it will most likely close, but not for at least another 15 years. The problem I had with the Coal-Free Campaign was that it provided no solutions — students demanded that the plant be closed, but the university can’t just let students freeze in the Ohio winters and bathe in cold water.

Not all environmentalists preach about problems without solutions — a good example of solution-based environmentalism can be found in groups like the Coal River Mountain Watch, which opposes mountaintop removal mining while advocating it be replaced with the Coal River Wind project for producing wind energy. It’s an alternative that powers home while creating new jobs.

Although many environmentalists and environmental groups do use solution-based environmentalism to not only call for ends to unsustainable practices but to propose how to replace them and begin with new sustainable ones, it’s becoming too commonplace — especially in the realm of energy — for some to simply call for negative environmental practices to be stopped without thinking about the implications of such actions or the possible alternatives that are better for the environment.

As always, reduced demand and energy efficiency are the best place to start. People can do a lot by driving less and using less electricity. When it comes to efficiency, the new fuel standards of 35 miles per gallon are a good start, as many vehicles on the road have the same (or worse) fuel economy as the Ford Model-T.

Businesses can also do immense good by changing their own practices within the workplace and their products. Being more open to telecommuting (when possible), turning off lights and computers when people aren’t in the office, and recycling office products like paper and ink cartridges are a good start.

Look at your company’s product and see how it can be more sustainable. The Better Paper Project has several ideas aimed at publishing companies to publish fewer newstand copies of magazines (typically extras are left because no one wants the first one in the rack, which has typically been picked at by many grocery shoppers), to reduce the amount of paper scraps by printing on paper closer to the size of the actual magazine, and by encouraging magazines to print on post-consumer recycled paper with soy inks.

Another important step is revamping the government’s Energy Star program. Currently, companies send their products to get the Energy Star seal of approval and provide their own data for efficiency — the fact that Energy Star relies on companies to be honest about their products is naive and irresponsible, as companies have every incentive to fake their reports so they can claim a seal of approval and market themselves as “green.”

In a recent test, Energy Star approved 15 fake products that included a gas-powered alarm clock and a space heater with a feather duster attached to it. It’s not enough to simply rely on these companies’ lab reports — a third-party verification system is needed to verify the efficiency of these products so they actually lower energy use and force companies to truly make efficient products, not efficiently-deceptive lab reports.

Instead of focusing on finding the one end-all form of renewable energy, we need to change our mentality. We are used to coal, oil, and singular energy sources that provide all our energy needs. We need to wean ourselves off coal and oil by supplementing what can’t be erased by less demand and better efficiency. This means thinking critically about solar and wind power and how to make them cost-efficient. Nuclear and natural gas get tossed around a lot, but I don’t know enough about them to feel comfortable discussing them.

Regardless, it’s these conversations not just about what we hate that’s happening to the environment, but how to fix these problems, that are key to environmentalism really being appreciated and advocated by mainstream America and politicians. Events like this oil rig explosion and the explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia validate environmentalists’ concerns, but we need to be a step ahead and have alternatives and solutions as well.