Green Illusions: The Limits of Alternative Energy

From The Economic Times

By Ed Dolan

Are solar, wind, and other alternatives the magic bullets that will solve the world’s environmental and energy problems? Take a closer look, says Ozzie Zehner in Green Illusions . Zehner not only argues that green energy has technological, environmental and economic limits, but also that without an appropriate policy context, some forms of alternative energy could do more harm than good.

The dirty secrets of clean energy

The first part of Zehner’s book—by far the best—is devoted to explaining why neither photovoltaic, nor wind, nor biomass, nor any of the other alternatives to fossil fuels will be able to deliver a future of abundant, cheap, clean energy. Chapter by chapter, he brings out the environmental and economic limitations of each technology. Among the highlights—

  • Carbon isn’t the whole story. When you count toxic sludge from making solar panels, noise from windmills placed too close to residential areas, or changes in land use patterns from cultivating biofuel crops, you find that alternative energy has negative externalities of its own that offset its low-carbon benefits at least in part, and sometimes entirely.
  • Energy not only has to be produced, it has to be delivered when and where it is needed. Solar and wind power work fine in niche applications, but if you think about scaling them up to supply 20 percent or more of our energy needs, as some hope to do, you run into problems integrating these intermittent energy  sources with our antiquated national electric grid. If you include the needed costs of upgrading the grid and providing backups, solar and wind start to look a lot more expensive. Of course, upgrading the grid would reduce waste for all production technologies, but as Zehner explains that the remote locations and inherent intermittency of solar and wind make the upgrades even more urgent and expensive.
  • Beware of promises based on performance of alternative energy under ideal conditions. Under actual operating conditions, the costs of wind, solar voltaic, cellulosic ethanol, and the rest are typically higher than suggested by extrapolations from laboratory experiments or carefully controlled demonstration projects.

Zehner is quick to insist that he is not anti-green; he just wants to ask questions that the mainstream environmental movement glosses over. My one criticism is that he sometimes overstates his case. The first thing that raised my doubts was his claim that owners of home photovoltaic systems are routinely disappointed with high maintenance costs and performance well below what they were promised.  My own 6 kW system, after five years, has had no maintenance costs and has produced about 10 percent more power than the supplier estimated. Of course, that is only a sample of one, but it was enough to make me start reading more critically. I began seeing other spots where the author overstated his arguments. For example, he was unable to resist clichés like using a photo of a flaming water faucet to illustrate his section on fracking. Unfortunately, despite hundreds of endnotes, Zehner neither cites the source of the photo nor mentions documentation from the State of Colorado (a flaming faucet locale featured in the documentary Gasland) that explains why the link from fracking to flaming faucets is far from clearly established.

Still, details like these do not negate Zehner’s main point: Yes, there are lots of ways to generate energy without burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, none of them is reliably cheap or totally clean; at best some but not all alternative energy sources are cleaner than fossil fuel alternatives—which brings us to Zehner’s next topic.

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