“Renewable fuel” is the preferred energy source for environmental stewards. Power generated from water, the sun, the wind and geothermal deposits, and bio-based ethanol in gasoline taps into virtually inexhaustible sources. More reliance on renewable energy means less radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, less reliance on imported oil and “dirtier,” perishable domestic fossil fuels like oil and coal. Natural gas may be cleaner, but it is also a finite source that contributes to climate change, and the controversial “hydrofracking” drilling process concerns environmental advocates in Upstate New York and elsewhere.
Those environmentalists might applaud renewable energy in the abstract, but enthusiasm sometimes fades when actual projects move off the drawing boards.
Today, 29 states and the District of Columbia mandate ambitious increases in renewable energy. New York’s goal is 30 percent of the energy mix from renwables by 2015. In April, California Gov. Jerry Brown set a goal of one-third renewables by 2020. Reaching that goal would mean generating 17,000 megawatts of power from solar, wind and other renewable sources. That’s a tall order – the vast, $2-billion Ivanpah solar plant under construction in the Mojave Desert will add just 370 megawatts when it is completed.
Ivanpah already is targeted by environmental critics who say the five-square-mile project will drain water supplies, encroach on Native American sacred ground and jeopardize the Mojave ecosystem. The federal government has ordered a construction halt to protect the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.
Wind turbines also contribute to what the Nature Conservancy calls “energy sprawl.” The towering structures can require up to 200 tons of steel each to build, and are land-hungry – the Roscoe farm in Texas, which produces 781.5 megawatts of electricity, covers 154 square miles.
Vocal protests have buffeted the proposed offshore Cape Wind project as a blight on Nantucket Sound. People don’t like living near windmills – a recent report told of some neighboring property values in Central New York dropping. In addition, both solar and wind farms may require long transmission lines. In January, environmentalists blocked a planned transmission line through a forest en route to San Diego.
Even hydropower raises hackles. Environmentalists recently blocked a dam planned in Ohio, and other dams have come down to restore the normal river flow – while eliminating energy-generating potential.
For decades, debate has raged around ethanol. Is it cost-effective to produce? Does it artificially inflate corn prices? With oil prices high, Congress may eliminate $6 billion in ethanol subsidies. Without continued supports, however, the industry might collapse; the same with solar and wind projects.
Renewable power has the unbeatable long-term advantage of being, well, renewable. But there is a price to pay for all forms of energy. An effective national strategy properly embraces a bold expansion of renewables – mindful of the shortcomings – while also making the most, as environmental stewards, of the “perishable” energy sources still available.