Sen. Edward Kennedy, along with other powerful folks who summer on the fashionable Massachusetts shores of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, has blown up quite a storm over a proposal to put 130 windmills in Nantucket Sound.
The devices would provide about three-quarters of the electric power used in those three places, and cleanly. But not without turbulence.
For one thing, sunbathers would be able to see them from the shores of Cape Cod. So would recreational boaters. Then there is concern with disruption of navigational radar, an issue that sells better politically than keeping rich people’s views uncluttered.
Tempting as it is to turn this into a joke on limousine liberals who want to do good so long as it only inconveniences others, the controversy also involves limousine conservatives. Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, whose daughters own property on the Cape, has also gotten into the act.
More important, the situation illustrates a much larger point that needs intense focus as the nation frets over our dependence on foreign oil.
Foreign oil may be the most immediate concern because of the way it ties us to regions marked by tyranny, terrorism, and what seems like war without end. But other forms of energy production bring problems of their own.
Burning coal doesn’t tie the United States to the Mideast or other volatile places, but it does generate carbon dioxide the way burning oil does, which in the quantities involved in satisfying the energy needs of the planet is producing dangerous worldwide climate changes.
Nuclear power does not produce global warming, but it carries the risk of catastrophic discharge of radiation as well as the production of waste material (including some that can become tools of tyrants and terrorists) that no one knows quite how to dispose of safely.
Naturally, the optimistic mind turns to new sources of energy–like wind power.
As it does, though, a memory should spring up. At one point it seemed entirely positive to use the running water of rivers to produce electricity. Not only did this produce energy, but it also permitted flood control, irrigation of land otherwise unavailable for tillage or even human inhabitance.
Dams rose on rivers all over the U.S., just as they are now rising on China’s. In the process they thoroughly disrupted the environment. Salmon can’t come up rivers to spawn. Water temperature changes downstream, upending ecological niches. Silt piles up behind the dams, threatening them along with the species that find ways to thrive in the deep lakes dams create. The lakes themselves destroy habitats and archaeological treasures. And so on.
Here in the U.S. we have started pulling some of the dams down, replacing them with those dreams of environmentally harmless sources of energy such as ethanol, hydrogen, geothermal, wind and even the tides.
Here is the problem: the scale of consumption.
Look what it took to produce only 75 percent of the electricity used in a very small geography that only has a significant population for part of the year: Windmills in such quantity as to make that very geography less appealing.
In the scale to power the nation, they would surely disrupt natural habitats galore. Who knows, they might even change the weather.
The same can be said for any of the alternative sources of energy. Once you imagine it providing a significant percentage of the energy we consume, you see environmental harm.
What we will have to do is find different sources that produce the least long-term damage. But because damage comes from the scale of production, the most difficult question will remain: How to moderate humans’ consumption of energy?
One way is to limit population growth. Another is to have energy efficiency become a prime variable in all decision-making–from the engineering of modes of transportation and industrial production to planning how land will be used.
Control of population growth on any significant scale will raise religious and political issues. Developing countries will tell the developed world that they need their chance to waste energy to produce wealth. A family saving for a big house on an acre of land with a view of trees will not happily surrender that dream to metropolitan planners trying to maximize energy efficiency.
Domestically, the best way to change behavior would be to use taxation to drive up the price of energy and make the price reflect the global costs no one today has to bear. That would encourage use of public transportation, discourage wasteful use of electricity, overcooling in summer, overheating in winter and give everyone an interest in energy-efficient products.
But look at what the politicians here did with the announcement of a long-postponed electricity rate increase. Or consider the fact that there is actually debate in Wilmette over whether to offer a price break on a municipal auto sticker for autos that produce the least carbon dioxide.
We have a long, long way to go before we can reverse the mess our energy appetite has put us in. Unless we reduce consumption, pretty soon we will all find ourselves tilting at windmills.
By Jack Fuller
former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune
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