Energy Traps

The trouble with the way we talk about energy is that we talk only about energy.

Energy sources – mostly fossil fuels, but also nuclear and hydroelectric – are not created or exploited in a void. Their production and use have consequences for nature and for people, and not just the consequences we desire.

Our talk about energy seem to recognize this on some level. We confront the bigger problems with oil, for instance, when there’s a big oil spill, or when we discuss climate change. Many of us also recognize the secondary damage done by hunting and drilling for oil, like the access canals dug on the Gulf Coast that destroy sensitive ecosystems and eliminate buffering from ocean-borne storms.

In Pennsylvania, we hear about mountaintop-removal coal-mining; streams acid-orange from coal waste; air made toxic by coal-burning power plants; and water poisoned by gas drilling.

Funny, though – when we talk about how to do away with dirty energy, there’s an implicit assumption that regardless of what happens, we’ll keep using the same amount of energy we do now.

Carbon-heavy but nonrenewable stuff like petroleum and coal have long provided the world’s affluent with vast quantities of energy, all at a monetary cost that comes nowhere near reflecting the damage they do. But somehow, we think we’ll replace all those cheap BTUs, just without causing environmental harm.

Thus people imagine a future where there’s no oil, coal or natural gas – but there’s somehow still two cars per oversized house heated (or cooled) to 72 degrees year-round. Still affordable air travel, endless supplies of electronic gadgets and fresh strawberries in Manhattan in February.

This is a dangerous delusion for several reasons. Our entire civilization is built on the assumption of eternally available low-dollar energy. That assumption is embodied in every interstate highway, airport runway, every poly fiber of our clothes and every synthetically fertilized bite of organic rice. If energy gets more expensive, so does everything else.

And energy is going to get more expensive, largely because of peak oil. If we are not prepared to use much less energy, there is going to be more pressure on governments to produce more of other energy sources to compensate.

More coal mining. More gas drilling of the kind that’s already puncturing every other square mile of parts of places like Wyoming. And the cheapest remaining energy sources will be very dirty indeed. In some cases, as with the insane “tar sands” mining operations that are devastating places like the boreal forests of Edmonton, Canada, the mad search for oil substitutes will be much dirtier even than the hunt for petroleum.

So why not renewables? That’s the preferred solution of most clean-energy advocates.

The problem is two-fold. One, while wind and solar are surely an improvement on oil and coal, they still have costs. Wind turbines, as we know, kill birds and bats. Solar arrays of the industrial scale people envision would wreak havoc with the sort of desert ecosystems where many of them would be located. And the industrial infrastructure for both energy sources – the windmills, the photovoltaic cells, the circuitry – require large amounts of rare-earth metals whose mining and processing would cause much environmental damage.

Moreover, because wind and solar have space requirements that fossil-fuels extraction doesn’t, there’s a real limit to how much of these resources we can truly (as opposed to theoretically) harvest.

Mostly, though, the problem is that we’ve yet to come to grips with the idea that we can’t have energy that’s as cheap and abundant as it is now, forever, and have a healthy planet, too. We’ve long since passed that point.

It’s not going to help much to ramp renewables up to, say 20 percent of total energy use over a period of years – like many U.S. plans at the state and federal level suggest – if we also keep using more energy. That’s just postponing the inevitable.

(Such plans are also insufficiently ambitious: A new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, estimates that “[c]lose to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies” – and they’re not even considering big power-downs by the nations of the energy-gluttonous West.)

The problem, in other words, is that humanity simply uses more energy than the planet can afford. This will end with peak oil … or a little later, when the natural gas runs out … or it will end with planetary ecosystem collapse largely but not entirely driven by climate change, spiralling into dead oceans and spasms of flood, drought and other extreme weather.

We have to reduce the absolute amount of energy we use, and by quite a lot. Europeans per capita use half the energy Americans do — and they could do better, too.

We have to quickly get total energy use down to where we could supply basically all of it with renewables. (If climatologists are right, the “mid-century” timeline the IPCC cites is going to be way too late to help.)

I think it’s possible if we really want to do it. Of course, the energy interests that control our state and local governments will do their best to prevent movement in the direction either of renewable energy or deep conservation. They’ll say it’ll cost us jobs – never mind that our current path is costing us everything.

We have to stop thinking about how to continue to live the high-energy lifestyles the rich part of the planet now takes for granted. We have to start living within the planet’s own limits.

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