The Age of Tradeoffs

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Are green energy industries about to ruin the environment and undermine national security? Are they engaged in the ecological equivalent of mountaintop removal? Are they the new Big Oil, making us dangerously dependent on imported strategic resources?

Those questions are implied in “Clean Energy’s Dirty Little Secret”, a provocative article in the current issue of The Atlantic. Author Lisa Margonelli points out that wind turbines, hybrid cars and some other green technologies carry “their own hefty environmental price tag”, including the use of rare-earth minerals extracted from open-pit mines or imported from places like China.

I’ve encountered similar concerns among members of the U.S. intelligence community: In the pursuit of green energy, will we trade our dependence on one imported strategic resource – oil – for dependence on other imported strategic resources? 

Margonelli’s piece offers some solutions. Our research on renewable energy resources should include substitutes for rare-earth minerals, particularly those that are imported or require harmful extraction techniques. We should require that strategic minerals be recycled.

But a larger question lurks between the lines: Should green technologies and products be held to the same environmental standards as other industries? Is a company that mines neodymium for Prius motors any less responsible than Peabody Coal for good environmental stewardship?

And behind that question lies another: When does a green end justify not-so-green means? When, if ever, do the multiple benefits of solar, wind, biomass or geothermal energy, for example, justify some environmental damage during their life cycles?

One of the objections to “clean coal” is that even if we could capture and store its carbon, it wouldn’t be clean – not so long as coal companies blow up mountain tops, dump wastes into streams, pollute aquifers and haul their product to power plants in freight trains powered with carbon-rich fuels. Coal is like an immature blood diamond – valuable in its end use, but awful in production. Can renewables be called green if making them produces caustic chemicals or carbon emissions or open-pit mines?

To Margonelli’s small list of reforms, we can add a few more. We need to analyze the full, life-cycle costs and benefits of a technology or industry before we give it public money. We need to require that life-cycle climate impacts be included in environmental impact statements for federally funded projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.

But do what we will, some trade-offs are inevitable even for green technologies. Indeed, we have entered the Age of Tradeoffs in which environmental purity must give way sometimes to eco-pragmatism.

Renewable energy production is an example. In March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar created a task force to identify renewable energy zones on federal lands. Lands managed by the Department of Interior constitute one-fifth of the U.S. land mass and include 1.7 billion offshore acres. They contain significant renewable energy resources important to reducing the nation’s carbon emissions.

According to experts at Interior and the Department of Energy, good wind energy potential can be found on 21 million acres of public land in the 11 western states; six southwestern states have 29 million acres with good solar energy potential; good geothermal potential exits on 140 million acres of public land in western states and Alaska; 1,000 gigawatts of good wind potential can be found off the Atlantic coast; and more than 900 gigawatts off the Pacific Coast have good wind resources.

Salazar’s plan is to expedite environmental reviews and permits necessary to “connect the sun of the deserts and the wind of the plains with the places where people live." That is a welcome departure from the Bush Administration’s helter-skelter leasing of public lands for oil and gas production with little environmental review, while holding up permits for solar and wind.

It wasn’t long after Salazar’s announcement, however, that the New York Times reported “a rupture among environmentalists”. As the Times put it, “the environmental movement finds itself torn between fighting climate change and a passion for saving special places.” To their credit, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Google Earth are trying to make the impending trade-off more responsible by mapping where renewable energy should and should not be developed.

Then there is the controversy over siting wind turbines off the East Coast, where Not in My Backyard has become Not in My Ocean. Expect NIMBY, NIMO and internecine dust-ups to continue as we prepare to build high-speed rail and the new transmission lines needed to move renewable power around the country. Both are high priorities of the Obama Administration, and rightly so. Intelligent siting will resolve some conflicts, for example locating new transmission lines along existing grid and highway corridors. But there will be trade-offs. They are inevitable.

In other cases, the trade-offs are not so easy to justify or accept. An example is the ever-exciting field of geo-engineering. Early in April during his first interview since confirmation, President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, became the victim of a blogosphere firestorm when he was misquoted in the New York Times as saying that geo-engineering schemes are being considered by the White House to help mitigate global warming.

According to the Times: “Tinkering with Earth’s climate to chill runaway global warming — a radical idea once dismissed out of hand — is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option.” Holdren reportedly gave the example of shooting sulfur particles into the upper atmosphere to screen out sunlight, a process called aerosol loading.

Aerosol loading is an example of trade-offs at global scale. In an article in a March issue of Environmental Science and Technology, NOAA scientist Dan Murphy reported that injecting particles into the upper atmosphere would significantly reduce the performance of solar energy systems here on Earth – for example, passive solar systems, photovoltaic panels and concentrated solar power plants. In one scenario analyzed by Murphy, power production from solar electric systems would drop 20 percent with the biggest losses occurring during peak power hours.

In other words, we would reject solar energy rather than collect it. The result is a monumental trade-off that would affect not only solar economics, but everything from suntans to photosynthesis. Still unstudied, as far as I know, are the impacts on food crops, energy crops and the plants we count on as carbon sinks.

We are experiencing a gradually expanding circle of acceptability as we become more desperate for solutions to global climate change. Nuclear power, “clean coal” and geo-engineering research are supported today by environmental leaders who would not have given any of those options serious consideration a few short years ago. Today’s crazy idea becomes tomorrow’s salvation as we continue pumping gases into the atmosphere.

The Age of Tradeoffs has been made much more difficult by its immediate and still evident predecessor, the Age of Stupid (apologies to the new movie of that title). Despite decades of warnings about global warming, despite our rich tradition of energy crises, we have not even begun to tap the full potential of energy efficiency and renewable energy. We haven’t even really tried. We paid far more attention to Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater than his insight that our energy problems were the moral equivalent of war.

We humans, with the possible exception of certain members of Congress, are endowed with the unique ability to see consequences and to learn from mistakes – the intellectual equivalent of opposable thumbs. It’s time to use that ability before it atrophies.

Let’s make the necessary trade-offs; reject the really bad ones; recognize stupidity as the real weapon of mass destruction; pass a game-changing climate bill; completely rewire national energy policy; stop the taxpayer subsidies that have us paying one another to produce greenhouse gases; trade in our carbon-spewing national transportation policy before it’s as obsolete as General Motors; assemble a rescue package for our children; and get on with the job of building a new economy before we become Darwin’s biggest dropouts – the species that had all the tools to survive a changing world but made itself extinct by refusing to use them.