Regarding “Power Switch,” in the Fall 2018 Voice:
What is actually being “switched”? The article describes efforts to replace one extractive energy source with another, one that in many ways is measurably worse – not just for our pocketbooks, as the article made clear, but especially for the planet as a whole.
The article describes wind and solar energy as commercially viable yet outlines some of the challenges facing its actual use that in fact make it commercially unviable, particularly integration into the grid, which requires extensive overbuilding, gigantic-scale battery backup, and thousands of miles of new high-capacity transmission lines and connectors.
That is due to the intermittency and variability of wind and solar, as well as their utter lack of correlation with actual customer demand. The attempts to resolve that problem begin to look like a Rube Goldberg contraption, and as such they also make our use of “conventional” sources less efficient and more harmful.
In addition, wind and solar are very diffuse resources, requiring ever larger installations to collect any meaningful amount, and therefore ever more raw materials – many of them toxic – for their manufacture and maintenance, not to mention the inevitably appalling land use burden.
A recent study out of Harvard (Miller & Keith, Environmental Research Letters 2018;13:104008) determined that if the U.S. wanted to meet its current electricity consumption from wind, it would require 12 percent of its continental land area. The land required is currently open or wild, often forested, and such development would obviously have substantial adverse consequences for animal and plant life as well as air and water quality. In addition to current consumption, the “power switch” is calling for even more by moving heating and transport to electricity.
It is indeed a challenge, but the solutions described will simply replace (or rather, only add to) one set of environmental and economic issues with a likely worse set. Until a real alternative is found – one that is more efficient, not less – we need to talk about conservation, as well as other ways of reducing greenhouse gases, such as eating less meat.
Eric Rosenbloom ’82
March 14, 2019
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