By this time, most people understand that we have set in motion some pretty serious changes for the future of the planet. As a society we have evolved a lifestyle that requires the use and extraction of many natural resources. Unless forced to, it seems unlikely that we will give up our cars, airplanes, homes, air conditioners, hot tubs, appliances, and so on—basically all our manufactured comforts. However, we are also incredibly inventive and, on occasion, excellent problem solvers. We are pretty good problem creators as well, but let’s focus on the solving part.
Our chosen lifestyle is somewhat flexible; we could choose to stop using plastics and reduce our waste by being more responsible with the products we make and purchase. This would be a relatively easy adjustment in some ways. There are choices that any individual or industry can make and policies that governments can make that can drastically reduce our impacts. A trickier challenge is our need for power and energy. If we want to make responsible products and effectively recycle our waste, whether it is to extract metals and oils from savaged sources or produce new products from recycled materials, we need some way of powering our technology. So far the solution has been large-scale power production, but it is not very efficient, increasingly expensive, and has huge impacts on our environment.
What exactly is the problem with large-scale power? We already discovered that coal power doesn’t work because it pollutes the air so badly that people suffer serious health issues and plants struggle to grow. Nuclear in some ways is very effective, but when it goes wrong it goes very wrong, and most people now consider the small risk of a devastating disaster unacceptable. There is also the problem of what to do with the waste material, which we solved by hiding it and hoping that nothing will ever disturb it. Large-scale hydro is a popular option and is often considered the “clean energy” solution. You can Google the proposed Site C Dam and any document you find will have some reference to clean energy in the title. The problem is that this perception is somewhat inaccurate and depends on how you define “clean”.
Large-scale dams are not clean; they are just subtler in how dirty they are. Granted, once built they provide a consistent source of non-polluting power, but the environmental impact is much higher than most people realize. River and lake ecosystems are not identical. If you take a river and turn it into a lake, you are seriously altering the habitat. This creates problems for all the life that once depended on that river system. Fish are the most obvious victims, but many smaller organisms that support the fish are also affected, along with the plants and animals that live along the shoreline. Damming the river permanently alters the flood cycles, the temperature of the water, and even the properties of the water itself. River ecosystems are designed to flood and to pick up sediment and nutrients from the banks as they rise and then to redistribute it down stream. They shift and transform the land around them. These are slow processes, but they are the life of every landform on the planet. Building a dam blocks the flood process and causes sediment to settle into the lake so it never reaches downstream, robbing the downstream ecosystems of the nutrients. Often when people talk about a dam they praise the flood control it offers. Flood control was touted as a benefit to American citizens downstream of the Canadian dams built on the Columbia River, and they continue to pay a fee for this service. It is true that there is flood control but at a huge environmental cost. Flood plains offer some of the best farmland around. When the Columbia River was dammed near Revelstoke, BC it destroyed the farmland in the area making it much harder for the community to be self-sufficient when it comes to food. Flood plains are where you should grow food, not where you should build your house. When the river finally flows to the ocean it creates an estuary, which is an entirely new ecosystem the supports a whole new collection of habitats and species. Many species that support the fisheries industry need estuary habitats at some point in their lifecycle. The Glen Canyon Dam prevented the Colorado River from reaching the sea, resulting in the death of a large wetland area and important habitat for the fishing industry. Recently they have begun restoring some of the flow and habitat, a promising practice and a positive sign that maybe we are realizing our mistake. The final nail in the coffin to any argument that supports large-scale dam projects is the large amount of methane and CO2 that is released when the organic matter decomposes underwater. Few people realize how much vegetation and soil contribute to regulating our atmosphere and that permanently flooding those areas undoes all that helpful sequestering of greenhouse gases.
Additionally, the power lines coming from a large centralized power source, whether it is wind, solar, nuclear, or hydro, are massive and require large strips of land to be cleared and maintained. This is an ongoing expense often forgotten when we evaluate the impacts of power stations on the environment and our wallets.
So what is the solution? The answer is a change in our practice. We now have the technology to produce power from many renewable sources. The challenge with these renewable options is power storage. Power storage is actually an issue with any power generation. If you can’t store it you have to produce it in real time, which means things have to be running or standing by to run at all times in order to meet demand. Fortunately, we are getting better at building batteries, which makes it easier to meet our energy needs with renewables.
The key to small-scale power generation is variety. Every place is different and has different resources for generating power. Even within one community there may be multiple options. Having multiple sources creates resiliency, making it easier for communities to adjust to changing conditions. Germany has 142 villages that meet their energy needs with bio energy (bioenergiedorf.fnr.de). In Denmark, wind power is a popular option. Australia has also had many communities shift to more community-based power production, including the Hepburn Wind farm in Victoria and other communities attempting to follow the blueprint of a net zero energy town. Aspen, Colorado; Greensburg, Kansas; Burlington, Vermont; Kodiak Island, Alaska; and Rock Port, Missouri are all cities currently running on 100% renewable energy in North America. Most of them pair up a few sources. The most popular are wind, solar, hydro, bio fuels, or methane from waste. In some cases they will purchase green energy from elsewhere if they run short. All of these projects also have heavy emphasis on power reduction through lifestyle choices and building design.
Many of these systems still require the use of existing electrical infrastructure so they can receive power from elsewhere if there is a shortage, but alternative technologies are only getting better. We are improving existing wind technology so it can work with lower wind speeds, and PV panels are becoming more effective in terms of both energy and cost. Other options like microbial fuel cells, geothermal, and tidal energy are making advances. There are still some issues to be addressed, like battery life and how to dispose of the batteries. Obviously, these products still need to be produced and disposed of, which has a cost. The cost of installing these new systems is often more than communities can afford so most receive grants or loans. Once completed, the majority of projects result in substantial savings that quickly pay back the initial setup cost.
The bottom line is that we don’t need massive energy projects any longer. The funding should go into smaller stations that service the local community. The advantages to this far outweigh any advantages to large-scale power. Not only do the smaller projects leave more natural systems intact to everyone’s benefit, they also create more local jobs. And, having more than one source of power ensures that in an emergency there will be at least some power available. Given the incredible speed at which we can innovate, it seems well within our reach to revolutionize the energy industry. We just need policy and initiative to catch-up with the available solutions instead of clinging to the status quo.
What options does your community have for producing more localized and sustainable energy?
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