Robert Bryce is very good at advancing sophisticated arguments that try to show that what many people believe is not so. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, he gives a worthwhile critique of renewable energy -- after all, every technology should be analyzed for its strengths and weaknesses. The larger question, which his piece does well to illuminate, is this: in an imperfect world, what constitutes an economically and ecologically sustainable national energy system? How do we create one that is as low-cost as possible in the long run, one that is not based on a resource that will run out, and one that will emit as little carbon and pollution as possible? The problem is that his favored alternatives, natural gas and nuclear power, have serious flaws that need to be addressed. In the end, a mixture of solutions will be necessary for creating a sustainable energy future.
In pursuit of an answer to these questions, Bryce invokes the legacy of a founding philosopher of the environmental movement, E.F. Schumacher, author of a set of ideas that are encapsulated in the title of his classic book “Small is Beautiful." Schumacher virtually invented the concept of "appropriate technology," that is, technologies designed to fit in with the social capacities of a particular society and that are ecologically sustainable. These technologies should, above all else, not destroy the “natural capital,” i.e. the environmental resources, that underlies all societies and life. That is why Schumacher advocated for the use of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels and other resources that destroy the environment and then destroy an economy when they run out.
Which is why it is so peculiar that Bryce, at the end of his op-ed, both praises Schumacher and implies that natural gas and nuclear power are superior to renewable energy. Recently a Guardian columnist unearthed Schumacher’s opinion of nuclear power:
There could be no clearer example of the prevailing dictatorship of economics… That nuclear fission represents an incredible, incomparable, and unique hazard for human life does not enter any calculation and is never mentioned… [To submit to the nuclear lobby] is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilization could sustain itself on the basis of such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical monstrosity.
After Fukushima, this quote seems particularly clairvoyant. Sustainability doesn’t simply mean minimizing emissions that cause global warming, it means minimizing long-term damage to the environment, of which global warming is but one possible cause. An irradiated planet would be just as deadly, if not more so, than global warming.
Natural gas does not fit Schumacher’s definition of appropriate technology either, since Schumacher believed that “the world cannot rely on diminishing supplies of non-renewables.” Natural gas is not renewable. Schumacher did not live to see the destructive toll that natural gas is wreaking on the water supplies of the United States as a result of "fracking." Fracking entails the fracturing of rock in order to free up vast underground sources of natural gas, which unfortunately requires poisoning huge amounts of water. Fresh water, despite its generally low price, is about the most precious resource on Earth. The regions that are being subjected to fracking risk being turned into wastelands, and risk becoming uninhabitable -- sort of like nuclear power.
So nuclear and natural gas power don’t fit the bill for a sustainable energy system because they will run out of fuel, their cost will rise, they emit carbon (yes, even nuclear power), and they are very damaging to the environment.
Bryce also points out that wind and solar power are flawed. While they are not perfect resources, for some of these problems I would argue that he protests too much. For instance, he calculates in his article that 50 tons of steel is required per megawatt for wind, while for natural gas, only one quarter of a ton of steel is required. He starts off his article by pointing out that California just passed a law that 17,000 megawatts of electricity will have to be generated with renewable power. Even if all of that power came from wind, that would mean 850,000 tons of steel would be necessary to build the needed wind turbines. Yet the US alone, which produces only about 8% of the world’s steel, annually rolls out about 93 million tons. So to create the steel needed for producing one third of California’s electricity with wind turbines would require only one percent of one year of our steel output.
And almost all steel can be recycled -- more than 50% of the steel produced annually in the U.S. comes from scrap steel. Scrap steel is in high demand because the mini-mills that have become so popular in the last few decades process scrap -- that is, they recycle steel. Mini-mills use electricity to melt down the scrap, which could come from wind. Steel, therefore, could be part of an “appropriate,” indefinitely sustainable production system.
However, steel mills and electric networks with huge wind turbines do not bring the word “small” to mind, and Bryce correctly points out that wind farms require a lot of land. But the vast majority of that land, generally farm land, can continue to be used for it primary purpose.
Concentrated solar power (CSP), on the other hand, does use up the land it is situated on, including the desert, which is a thriving ecosystem. Because of this I am much more ambivalent about CSP, although Joe Romm thinks CSP is a critical part of a clean energy solution. Installing solar panels on buildings would better fulfill the “small is beautiful” requirement than big wind or solar farms. Buildings are “autonomous units,” to use Schumacher’s phrase, which means that economic power is distributed. That is, citizens have greater control over their economic environment when they control the means of energy production. The problem is, solar panels require multibillion dollar, big factories to create the purified silicon needed for their production. On the other hand, wind power networks can provide the electricity needed for those factories (which can indeed provide reliable and continuous electricity), and the source of silicon is sand, or quartz. So again, we have the potential for a sustainable energy system.
We are left, it seems to me, with alternatives that no one can consider pure. Schumacher might have hesitated to advocate for big renewable projects and factories; environmentalists might not want transmission lines crisscrossing ecosystems; Bryce would prefer natural gas be a central part of a sustainable energy system. But building big photovoltaic and wind factories, big wind and possibly solar farms, installing solar panels on buildings, and using some natural gas are certainly better parts of a solution than building more coal plants, which not only emit the largest concentrations of carbon, but spew a toxic cocktail of mercury and other public safety hazards. It is important to debate all alternatives, and then, soberly and pragmatically, choose the best economically and ecologically sustainable combination.
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.