“Green Technology” Not So Green


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Emitting virtually zero direct emissions and producing enough energy to power a large city with a small plant, this clean energy source was thought to be revolutionary and was quickly implemented globally to replace older “dirty” forms of power.  Is this wind?  Solar?  Fuel cells?  Electric cars?  No, this was hydroelectric power that was hailed as the energy savior almost a century ago as large plants were built around the world.  Funny thing is that less than 1/2 a century later hydro-electric plants were seen as environmentally hostile – disturbing entire eco-systems, impairing critical fish hatcheries and destroying virgin landscapes according to many environmental groups.  Now, flash forward to the present day where green is “in.”  We have anticipated and fixed all environmental problems with current technology – right?  Wrong?

Electric cars are freely marketed as environmentally friendly and having zero emissions.  Not sure how the car companies are getting away with this lie, but it is certainly not true.  Since environmentalists have shut down any further American development of hydro-electric or nuclear power plant development, any new demand for power has to be currently met by expanded use of traditional fuel sources such as coal or oil (“green” sources of power such as wind and solar produce a minuscule percentage [less than .1%] of American energy http://www.motherearthnews.com/Renewable-Energy/Solar-Power-Potential.aspx ).  When you plug your electric car into the socket, the power fairies do not sprinkle energy dust, your car pulls power from the grid.  This power is created with far more proportional emissions that the equivalent traditional gas powered car.  By buying an electric car, you haven’t “made the world a better place,” you have simply changed the place where the pollution is created.  http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/writing/Samples/policy/voytishlong.html

Solar power does have promise but it also comes with environmental costs that are currently high.  The typical solar field developer is currently seeking to develop solar “ranches” in 1,000 acre “patches.”  Today, a 1,000 acre solar ranch is filled with 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 solar cells.  While environmentalists seem to be almost universally supportive of the development of this technology, there are several places where the environmental fabric has been stretched quite thin.  First, by their nature, solar fields are ideally developed away from other forms of development.  This means that the ideal solar ranch is constructed in a place where there has never been construction in the past.  The solar plants take virgin soil and smother it with millions of solar cells wall to wall.  Second, because there ranches are being developed on virgin soil, they are often proposed in areas teeming with endangered and protected species.  I have watched with some amusement as almost all of the traditional environmental groups have chosen not to challenge solar projects even when they threaten the extinction of an endangered species.  Thirdly, just like hydro-electric plants that were originally hailed as “environmentally friendly” I wonder how long it will be before unbroken miles of solar panels will be viewed as “eyesores.”  Finally, the typical solar cell has a 10-25 year useful life.  This means that millions and millions of solar panels (typically 6 feet by six feet) must be periodically deposited in landfills.  Given that many of these solar panels contain toxic or hazardous materials, that is a future serious environmental challenge currently ignored.

Wind power is also hailed as “environmentally friendly,” yet poses many unresolved environmental challenges.  Even more than solar power, wind farms require isolation from existing development.  Wind farm developers have sophisticated models that are amazingly accurate at predicting the power generating capacity of any land that could be converted to wind power generation.  Unfortunately, these models breakdown if there is any incursion of development nearby.  (An interesting side issue is the concept of “wind theft” that comes up when one wind farm start to build up wind from another wind farm and there is a claim of “wind theft.”)  Just like solar field development, wind farm development requires the development of virgin land, impacts on endangered and protected species and I believe that environmentalists will be calling the rolling fields of wind turbines “eyesores” within a generation.

I am not against the continued development of clean energy from any source.  I do think that clever advertising has created an imaginary divide between “green” and “dirty” technologies that is more based on rhetoric than it is on reality.  Because of the successful campaign of rhetoric launched by the “green” energy forces (hello Mr. Gore), we are now ignoring environmental laws protecting endangered species, relating to the disposal of hazardous wastes and visual blight while providing “green” companies like Solydnra with billions and billions of dollars of dollars n tax incentives for technologies that really aren’t that green.


About Geoff Willis