Monday, October 5, 2009

Renewable Energy - Threat to Conservation?

In a thoughtful post that neatly summarizes the dilemma often faced by those with a social conscience, EcoGeek's Hank Green asked the poignant question if whether the aggressive push toward renewable energy championed by the current administration might have the unintended consequence of threatening conservation efforts.

Although I don't see the issue in quite as stark, zero-sum terms as Mr. Green, it does highlight the often unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies. One example that comes to mind is the corn ethanol subsidy a few years ago that raised the price of corn, and by extension, livestock and a number of other commodities that are linked to corn production.
The example brought up in EcoGeek's blog post is the use of public land for concentrated solar, and other real-estate intensive renewable power sources. Add to that the infrastructure needed to transport the power from often remote areas to urban centers.

The fact of the matter is, there's no "perfect" answer that makes everyone happy. Hydroelectric, wind, and yes, even solar, all have an impact on the environment. Some of the comments on the blog advocate distributed (localized) solar, but aside from the lease option offered by some companies, the upfront cost is often beyond the means of average homeowners.

If I had to throw my hat on one side of this issue or the other, I'd say we need to intensely focus on long-term energy independence (as opposed to the "drill here, drill now" mantra parroted by the red kool-aid drinkers, which at best, may provide 50 more years of fuel). If a few field mice or silver minnows are endangered in the process, as cruel and callous as this may sound to some, it's a small price to pay to avoid the consequences of dependence on foreign energy, or continued dependence on outdated and polluting sources of energy.

Where do you fall on this issue? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.


  1. Hello,

    Read your post with some interest. I worked on a renewable energy project up north for several years (biomass) converting waste wood, paper grass etc. to pellets for space heating. What I cannot understand is why fuel as to be a liquid, and after months of research I came to the conclusion that the only reason I could find was "liquids are what the big oil companies were built around". All of there storage and refining equipment were made to process liquid fuels. And taking food plants and converting to a liquid fuel has been a tremendous failure. Solid fuels such as pelletized biomass is much more practical and inexpensive way of making fuel. A good size pellet plant cost approximately $10 million; an oil refinery cost is $100+ million.

    I have seen some incredible technology while I was working on this project, many may think that burning biomass pellets will give off the same pollutes as oil and coal but this is not so. The new biomass burners combust on a two or more stage process. These new burners restrict oxygen to the fuel while it is burning thus creating a dense smoke and this smoke is super combusted to produce the primary burn. In doing so virtually all of the particulates and smoke associated with the burning of biomass are converted to energy rather than going up a stack. These new biomass burners are 93% less emissions than burning oil or coal. One ton of biomass pellets as the equivalent energy to three barrels of crude oil.

    When it comes to transportation, storage and environmental impacts of biomass pellets, it is more efficient and practical than oil or coal. And if there were a spill of biomass pellets, well it can be cleaned up easily compared to a liquid fuel spill, and the grass will grow a little better where the spill took place. Overall there are some real bonuses to biomass production, and one is “there is biomass everywhere”, we don’t have to go to the middle of the ocean or some foreign land to get it. This translates into more local jobs and because this fuel is produced locally, all of the economic benefits go right back into the each community where the biomass pellets are being produced and used.

    One thing that cannot be ignored about biomass pellet fuel, it is just that, “it is a fuel” and is the only thing that we have that is renewable that can displace oil, gas and coal. All other renewable energy sources (solar, geo, wave, hydro) have there place for sure, but the one thing are not, they are not “fuel”.

    Best regards,

    ST Mannew

  2. Terry, thanks for your comment. I think biomass pellets need to be part of the broad conversation about renewable and sustainable energy. Certainly if you're talking about stationary power production, they would be an effective fuel source, but I don't know how suitable they'd be as a transportation fuel.

    I'd be curious to know how economically feasible biomass pellets are independent of government credits and subsidies. While I am not categorically opposed to government assistance to get promising emerging technologies off the ground, at some point down the road, all of these technologies need to be evaluated under the objective microscope of independent cost feasibility.

    My issue with a lot of the current alternative energy technologies is they're overly-dependent on government subsidies, and many of them don't seem like they have a well-developed end-game for (financial) sustainability beyond government assistance. Thanks again for your insightful comments.