When it comes to energy sources, nothing comes without a price. The question is where and when we’ll pay, as individual consumers – and as a species.
The direct costs are easy to measure. All you have to do is look at the numbers flying by on the gas pump the next time you fill up or check your latest utility bills. It’s the indirect costs – and unintended consequences – that usually leave people scratching their heads when it’s too late.
The unintended consequences of widespread fossil fuels are obvious today. People didn’t set out to change the climate, they just wanted a cheap, reliable energy source.
As we rush headlong after so-called alternative fuels, it is already evident that they will be bringing negatives along with the positives.
Take ethanol as an example. Right now, a lot of ethanol is being made with corn. Corn production that normally went into the food supply – either into the many food products we consume that use corn and corn syrup or to feed animals that we later eat – is being diverted to manufacturing ethanol. The result – there’s a corn shortage and food prices will be going up.
So what about wind power? Those towering industrial turbines are becoming a more common sight around the country. And last week, Pennsylvania’s secretary of conservation and natural resources suggested that the state start thinking about allowing the wind turbines on state forest land.
Wind is touted as clean, reliable and non-polluting. But is it? Wind turbines won’t be throwing hydrocarbons into the air, of course. But wind advocates and environmentalists are engaged in a debate over the impact of turbines on wildlife, especially bats and migratory birds. People who live around existing wind farms are being studied for the effects of noise pollution and a phenomenon known as shadow flicker caused by the turning blades.
Turbine footprints are large – and if the machines are located far from populated areas, extensive transmission lines have to be built. That’s bound to have an environmental impact
And there are no uniform standards regarding where or how industrial wind turbines should be built. Nor has there been much discussion about what should happen when a wind turbine, which has a life expectancy of about 20 years, wears out.
Ironically, the government push to develop alternative fuels is partly to blame for higher gasoline prices. More refinery capacity would increase supply and help bring prices down. But given the huge investment a new refinery represents and the long time needed to earn that investment back – up to 30 years – oil companies are reluctant to sink their resources into such a murky future where petroleum may be a smaller piece of the American energy pie.
In fact, ExxonMobil”˜s chairman told the Wall Street Journal last year that new refineries won’t be a good investment, because the company expects petrofuel consumption to peak around 2020.
There’s an unintended consequence if there ever was one.
4 June 2007
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