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Gnashing on Renewables: Time To Face the Options

by Scott Sklar

RE Insider, July 26, 2004 -As our planet slides into expanding use of coal which has dreaded impacts on global climate change, added mercury and particulate pollution, and reduced water quality -- and increased used of nuclear power which adds to waste and proliferation hazards -- and natural gas being considered in its liquified form which increases our energy imports and gives terrorists more targets for their lethal arsenal -- I am stunned about the angst on certain renewable energy options. First, most experts agree that the planet would be immediately better off with substantive moves by the global economies toward what I call "high value" energy efficiency. From higher mileage vehicles to high performance buildings and commercial/industrial processes, energy efficiency allows anyone to do more with less. The countries on this planet of ours could cut our energy use by 20 percent with existing technologies and increase their GNP at the same time while reducing pollution and increasing public health and safety -- the sanest option.

Second, every energy technology, whether conventional or renewable, needs foresight, planning and thoughtful siting. No argument here. But some of the whining I have heard from the "community" on use of renewables loses sight of the fact that if the planet sustains conventional energy use -- our health, our safety, and our climate could be irrevocably harmed and diminished.

So, what am I talking about?

Hydropower phobia -- while detractors point to Three Gorges dam (China), most hydropower is either being upgraded with more efficient turbines, and expansion appears to be utilizing microhydropower including newer freeflow hydropower requiring no dams or diversions. Scale should always be a concern, but hydropower does not have to be large or invasive or ruinous to watersheds. And, not all large hydropower has deleterious effects if planned carefully with all effected segments of the community.

Wind offshore -- while some detractors see "inch high" wind turbines on the ocean horizon as sinful, their impact compared to offshore oil derricks or LNG transfer stations are far less impacting to the environment. The option of not allowing offshore wind and thus inviting more coal use would insure that visibility to even see that far would be impaired. While we need, as a people, to develop criteria to visually protect our most cherished mountain, forest and ocean vistas -- that should not be a license for every view, everywhere.

Biomass anywhere -- the misinformation and misunderstanding of biomass for transportation fuel, heat and electric power is beyond comprehension. Of course, before any biomass is converted to energy, anything contaminated or non-biodegradable should be removed and recycled. Virtually all biomass energy experts embrace biorefineries, that is, making a portfolio of coproducts from biomass which include energy, food (for both humans and animals), chemicals (including paints, resins and glues), fertilizers, as well as building materials and textiles. While 90 percent of our corn goes for animal feed, there is nothing wrong extracting the sugar for fuel and using the remaining distillers dried grains for animal feed. While our seed oils and cooking oils enter the waste stream, there is nothing wrong to convert them to biodiesel and other fuels. Intercepting wastes before they contaminate and degrade watersheds is critical, as is preventing pollution in our planet's air. Responsibly and partially removing forest undergrowth and forest thinning, not only prevents forest horrific forest fires, but allows healthier forests, enhances the economy, and provides an immense amount of energy. And obviously, regrowing biomass is the best carbon sink available in confronting long term stabilization of greenhouse gases.

Geothermal persona - tapping the heat resource within the earth is about as good as it gets - and yes away from geysers and rainforests - but the value of this resource is often overlooked and underestimated. The visual concerns are nonsense - essentially some piping and some buildings -- no giant cooling towers, no heaps of coal and coal ash, no nuclear repositories - just transferring valuable, naturally-made heat into electric power.

Solar blinding bugs? - in the 1980's a graduate student's paper on how increased use of solar would blind birds and bugs made the front pages and editorial pages of our largest newspapers. When the reporters called, I mentioned that more windows would have a similar impact and asked, "should we give up windows?". The smart reporters got it. And frankly, greater use of solar from the larger concentrated solar plants in the southwest US, to the photovoltaics and solar water heating now all over the world -- I am happy to say (and feel vindicated), birds and bugs are seeing just fine. But the fundamental issue really is if we use less solar and more fossil fuels, wouldn't that hurt birds, bugs, flora, fauna even more? You bet.

Hydrogen hype and snipe -- as we all know, hydrogen is not an energy source but rather a storage medium, and a nifty one at that. It can be used to mask the hazards of further coal and nuclear production, or provide greater value for intermittent resources like solar and wind and seasonally-challenged resources like biomass and hydropower. There are elegances and hazards in its large scale transportation. But the goal of this storage medium, as well as advanced batteries, new thermal storage materials, compressed gas, and range of other technologies -- is that it be sustainably-tied to renewable energy, not just a way to disguise more dirtier, non-renewable fuels.

All or nothing -- we live in a complex world where change comes slowly. Smart approaches to develop hybrids with convention energy resources have proven well. Concentrated solar with natural gas, biomass-coal cofiring, along with renewable hybrids such as photovoltaic/wind applications, smart use of waste heat and combined heat and power -- all typify an incremental and important trend. This is to be encouraged, not discouraged because as with any activity, it takes time to build skills, build the learning curve, and build the manufacturing, delivery and service infrastructures for these newer technologies, Progress does not happen through immaculate conception, but rather through dogged determination and national will. While this country does not have the bully pulpit of the Presidency behind the move towards greater energy efficiency and renewable energy - State governments and foreign governments have risen to the challenge. In the United States, Republican Governors from Schwartznegger (CA), Pataki (NY), (MA), and Guinn (NV) are strong proponents, as are Democratic Governors such as McGreevy (NJ), Richardson (NM) and Blagojevich (IL). Internationally, Great Britain, Germany) and Japan are leading the planet in the renewable future, which could be overtaken by India and China not in the too distant future.

Again I reiterate, good planning and thoughtful siting are important for any technological endeavor -- including renewables. But we must put in context siting issues with the other climate, health and security issues we face as a global family. This year represents my 30th year in the clean energy field, and I am proud where the environmental advocates and the renewable energy industries have come.

But let us not forget the big picture. As we add billions more people to this planet and already tolerate one-third -- two billion people -- without access to electricity, we will need more intense incorporation of energy efficiency coupled with a concentrated use of renewable energy applications -- if we want a sustainable world. Embracing all clean energy technologies and nurturing them into pragmatic, yet thoughtful, development paths is a "must" not just an "option"

About the Author...

Scott Sklar is founder of The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm advancing the utilization of clean, distributed energy applications such as advanced batteries and controls, energy efficiency, fuel cells, heat engines, microhydropower, minigeneration (natural gas), modular biomass, photovoltaics, small wind and solar thermal (air-conditioning, water and industrial process heat, and power generation); with blended financing and customer facilitation. Scott Sklar, the Group's president, lives in a solar home in Arlington, Virginia and his coauthored book, A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy, was just re-released in 2003 for its third printing. Scott is also serving as Interim Executive Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association and as Steering Committee Chairman of the DC-based Sustainable Energy Coalition.