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Seeing red about going green. July 22, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was startled to see not one but two articles pointing out the negative aspects of sustainable (so-called “green”) energy in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, this past Wednesday. In the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, the BP oil spill, crippling gas prices at the pump, and the raging debate about groundwater contamination from undermining great swaths of Marcellus shale to extract natural gas, you—or at least our friend Ben—would expect people to be regarding sustainable sources of renewable energy benignly.

Not so. And the reasons it’s not so point up the high and sometimes unforseeable consequences of every form of energy consumption. Because, unfortunately, each form of energy does carry a very real cost and somebody’s ultimately going to pay it.

The first article, “Wind turbines turn against bats,” was sparked by the release of a Pennsylvania Game Commission report that tallied more than 10,000 bat deaths caused by wind turbines last year in Pennsylvania alone. There are now 420 wind turbines (aka modern windmills) in Pennsylvania; according to the Nature Conservancy, there could be 2,900 by 2030, bringing annual bat deaths in the state to 69,000.

If bats bring Dracula, aerial attacks on beehive hairdos, or rabies to mind, you may wonder what the big deal is, even with such a high toll. But bats contribute to our health and prosperity, as organic gardeners have long known (thus the phenomenon of bat houses). Why? To quote the article:

“Bats are nature’s pesticide, consuming as many as 500 insects [each] in one hour, or nearly 3,000 insects in one night… If one turbine kills 25 bats in a year, that means one turbine accounted for about 17 million uneaten bugs in 2010… In all of Pennsylvania, bats saved farmers $277.9 million in estmated avoided costs [of purchased pesticides and insect damage to crops].”

Mosquitoes are one of bats’ favorite foods, so having these “creatures of the night” around and thriving reduces our risk of mosquito-borne diseases, not to mention the sheer itchy aggravation of their bites. And if their appetites reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on crops, it also reduces the amount of toxins we’re exposed to in our food and environment. Crops cost less to produce, harvests are bigger, and as a result, consumers pay less for their food. Everybody wins.

But now the bats are losing, and so are the songbirds, majestic birds of prey, and even butterflies that regularly crash into the spinning blades. Wind turbines have also long come under attack from nature lovers for aesthetic reasons: wind farms (groups of turbines) are loud, and prime spots for them—open areas with high winds—tend to be on mountains, ocean cliffs, and other scenic spots. The aesthetic issues may never be resolved, but the wind companies are looking into ways to reduce wildlife deaths, from slowing down the blade speed to installing devices on the turbines that would produce high-pitched sounds that would warn the bats away (and would only be detectable to them).

Meanwhile, in another piece in the same paper, “Solar farm math does not add up,” gadfly columnist Paul Carpenter takes on a much-lauded project by local industry giant Air Products, a pioneering 15-acre installation of 11,239 solar panels. (In case you’re wondering, as our friend Ben did upon first moving here, what on earth Air Products sells, it’s industrial gases, including oxygen for hospitals.)

Mr. Carpenter’s basic point is that it cost $9 million to establish the “solar farm” for Air Products, which estimates that the installation will save them $250,000 in energy costs a year. A calculator will show you that the solar farm would thus pay for itself in 36 years, assuming the cost of replacing and maintaining panels doesn’t exceed the rising cost of conventional energy. And assuming that the project is paid off upfront in cash.

Here’s where things get bad. For any company to assume that it would still be in business, in the same location, in 36 years displays impressive optimism. But a correspondent of Mr. Carpenter’s, Bob McInerney, did a little research into the cost of borrowing that $9 million. He found that payment on a 30-year loan for that amount at 4% interest would add up to $515,608.56 a year. It doesn’t take a math genius to observe that a savings of $250,000 a year offset by a cost of $515,608 a year results in a $265,608 net loss per year, or $8 million over the life of the loan. On top of the original $9 million.

Mr. Carpenter’s column ranges over quite a bit more ground, including his own objections to wind turbines. (You can read it and the bat article at www.themorningcall.com.) He notes that Mr. McInerney recommends geothermal energy, having installed a ground-source heat pump at his home which provides both heating and cooling for a net cost of $14,000. (For purposes of comparison, just last night, friends were telling our friend Ben that it costs about $6,000 to put in a central air-conditioning system, not, of course, including the subsequent electric bills for using the system or, presumably, including a heating system and its operating costs.)

Clearly, nothing we do is going to be perfect. We can research cheaper, simpler-to-operate, more efficient solar energy systems. We can work on ways to minimize damage from wind energy. We can put our best minds worldwide to creating and perfecting other effective and affordable renewable energy systems. As individuals, we can do everything in our power to reduce our own energy use: reduce, reuse, recycle.

But ultimately, it seems to me that there is really only one way to stop the energy-consumption madness, and that’s to reduce our population. The more of us there are, the more energy we will inevitably use. The goal of every nation and every person on earth should first be zero population growth, and then, quickly, population decline.

Many cultures already raise children in large, communal families, where every child is cherished by an extended group of adults. By expanding these circles to include adults who have chosen the good of all life over their own “need” to procreate, by facilitating adoptions rather than making them nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive, by encouraging new kinds of families, be they groups of friends sharing a dwelling or multigenerational groups, from “adopted” grandparents and great-grandparents down to newborns, we could provide the social context humans need to thrive without the destructive consequences of mindless self-perpetuation at a cost it’s clear that we and our world can no longer bear.