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Even with Renewables, We Can’t Have It All

Posted on the 10 October 2013 by 2ndgreenrevolution @2ndgreenrev
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The law of unintended consequences is fairly well understood when studied in the context of history, economic policy, and even when it comes to the large number of visitors to our national parks, but wouldn’t a world of cheap, renewable energy have unintended consequences of its own? I think this idea is worth considering since a planet powered by this type of infrastructure seems to be the utopian endgame for a lot of environmentalists, policy makers and clean energy advocates.

As we’ve seen with fossil fuels and even natural gas and ethanol, which have been billed as being clean and renewable, respectively, there are always pesky side effects that seem to rein in our expectations. While renewable energy would help alleviate fears over global warming and air pollution stemming from coal-fired power plants, it’s not unreasonable to think it might create a set of unintended consequences of its own.

Among them, I think we would be prone to using energy very inefficiently since, hey, it’s cheap and doesn’t hurt the environment. While this behavior might seem harmless on the surface, it stands to reason that this would lead to growing energy demand and require the manufacturing of more energy sources. While solar, wind and other renewables capture energy harmlessly, at least in terms of emissions, the pollution from manufacturing them is anything but.

In fact, a University of California-Berkeley study points out that solar manufacturers use toxic and explosive compounds that can pose hazards to local residents, and that when solar panels meet the end of their lifecycle, the heavy metals they contain can contaminate groundwater. Furthermore, the solar industry is one of the leading emitters of potent greenhouse gases that are 10,000 to 25,000 more harmful than carbon dioxide. Wind turbines also require resource-intensive manufacturing and pose well-known risks to bird migrations, not to mention the fact that they usually have to be situated in remote locations.

I think the most ideal solution would be to combine renewables with a shift in how we use or sell energy. Since getting people to use less energy is virtually impossible if all variables remain constant, looking at pricing might be an effective strategy. To this end, California has used a system called decoupling, where energy companies are rewarded for selling less energy to customers instead of more. This system has stabilized per capita electricity consumption in California while the national average went up 50 percent over the same period.

The point is, no matter how efficient or green we become, we still live in a finite world. Advances in technology must be complemented with changes in the way we consume energy.

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By [[User:]] (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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