Environmental Paradox?

April 16, 2009

I was reading a really interesting article in the Washington Post today about the perceived paradox in building renewable energy infrastructure and preserving wildlife habitat and pristine areas. The article, in brief, highlights the trade-offs and compromises that must be made to create clean, renewable energy. The issue at hand with renewable energy is two fold: the area of land required to generate clean energy, and the fact that renewable energy is usually most abundant in areas far away from the urban centers that need the power (see: North Dakota). These issues create massive problems for land conservationists who don’t want to see wildlife habitat impacted for any reason. Now it is true that you need more land to produce a megawatt of power from the sun or wind than you do from a coal fired power plant, but just looking at that only tells part of the story.

  • Global warming is the greatest threat to wildlife, period. The IPCC report states that 20-30% of species will face a greater risk of extinction, even with only moderate climate change. This far outweighs the localized effects of another transmission line or acres of solar panels.
  • Our dependence on fossil fuels has a great impact on our land and wildlife. Coal, for example, has a massive footprint — much of the coal consumed in the US today comes from mountain top removal mining, a process whereby mountains are literally turned to rubble to access the coal reserves inside.
  • Burning fossil fuels contributes more to the air than just CO2. Relying on coal for power emits tons of CO2, but also heavy metals like mercury and other pollutants like SOx and NOx. These have amazing impacts on the health of all life; mercury causes birth defects, and SOx and NOx contribute to respiratory ailments.

Now I have no intention to say that this provides full justification for all renewable energy projects everywhere – but it does help to illustrate that we are not just dealing with an apples to apples comparison. The land needed to generate power is only part of the equation. All power generation requires some trade-offs, and I wish that the Washington Post article had highlighted that fact a little better for me. I would rather have 100 acres of wind turbines, than three acres of a coal plant. Turbines are graceful and a sign of progress, coal is dirty and antiquated. What are your thoughts? Image courtesy of the Washington Post.