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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Energy – not free, not cheap and not without risk

Often missing from the debate over energy alternatives is honest talk about the real costs and risks associated with any energy source. It has certainly been absent in Charlestown’s distorted debate over wind energy, a debate that was IMO hijacked by anti-environmental NIMBYs spouting industry-funded propaganda.

And I must admit that my side in the debate – the side supporting renewable green energy – has been less than forthcoming in detailing the costs and risks connected to our proposals.

During the almost 20 years I worked as an organizer in the environmental movement, I heard the term “risk-benefit analysis” bandied about, usually by the bad guys. It used to piss me off because how you view risk and benefit depends a lot on who bears the risk and who reaps the benefit.

To add a little reality to Charlestown’s debate about energy, the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee will be hosting a movie night at the library, showing the film Gasland, which takes a hard look at those risks and benefits as they relate to Halliburton’s scheme to “frack” its way to making a fortune on natural gas reserves locked up in some forms of mineral deposits.

All energy sources, whether it’s conventional fossil fuels, nuclear power or renewable energy, will come at a cost. Some costs can be measured in money, or blood, or illness or effects on the environment. Some of those costs are short-term while others will be spread out over time. Some will be concentrated on particular areas or people, while others will be more diffuse.

No energy plan, even conservation, is free. None are cheap (even relatively plentiful coal takes a heavy toll on workers, coal mining communities and the environment). And none are without risk that can be measured in money, lives or the environment. As I discussed in a prior article, virtually all major energy production is heavily subsidized by the government.

Here’s a table of some of the major costs:
  • Research and development
  • Production cost
  • Transmission cost
  • Marketing and sales cost
  • Price paid by the energy consumer
  • Maintenance cost
  • Retirement or post-production cost
  • Worker health and safety
  • Public health and safety
  • Environmental impact
  • Depletion of resources
  • Potential for accidents

Energy producers are always looking to “externalize” – make somebody pay – their costs so they can boost their profits and increase their competitiveness. Fossil fuel producers receive handsome subsidies to develop and produce, significant tax breaks later, and push liability for health, safety and environmental damage onto the public. The nuclear power industry is truly the master at externalizing its costs.

Green energy developers are no where near as talented at feeding at the trough. Nonetheless, opponents complain that green energy is a waste of money and can’t be economically sound because it can’t ramp up without subsidies. Duh! Then by that measure, the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries have never been viable.

Green energy tends to cost more at the front end than conventional energy, for good and logical reasons. It’s much newer. It is far from the size needed to achieve the economy of scale. And, most importantly, green energy requires more investment capital at the front end so it can produce clean and relatively cheap energy over the long-term. Of course it’s going to cost more per energy unit now, when you factor in those development costs.

We’ll see an example of how that works right here in Charlestown this Saturday, May 28th starting at 9 AM, the Charlestown Liquor Store. I had a chance to tour the store with one of its designers, Andrew Baer of Oyster Works. The store is state-of-the-art everything in terms of energy efficiency and the use of green materials, most of it obtained or produced locally. It cost a lot of money to do such a nice job. Also, it’s a lot more complicated than, by way of example, a mass-produced Cumberland Farms.

But the Charlestown Liquor Store isn’t going to have any oil or gas bills because it’s heated by geothermal energy aided by remarkable energy conservation design features. The store will use a very modest amount of electricity to run its geothermal system and power its ultra-efficient lighting and refrigeration system. More than 100 local building trades and craftspeople got work on this project.

So next Saturday, while you’re on your way to the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee’s “It’s Not the End of the World Tag Sale which will be held just a short distance from the Charlestown Liquor Store (both on 1A), you should stop by and see Green Energy in action.

Charlestown has already made a terrible mistake of short-sightedness by enacting an ordinance that effectively kills wind power as an option – a mistake I hope we will reverse – but we will have many more chances to do the right thing, restore Charlestown’s now tarnished image as an environmental leader and become the Green Charlestown that we need to be.

Author: Will Collette