Prior to the industrial revolution of the 1700s, when the world depended almost exclusively on renewable energy, poverty and subsistence was the rule. The rise of mass affluence only came when highly concentrated energy – in the form of fossil fuels — made sustainable progress possible, both material and social. Lifespans improved along with living conditions and eventually the environment did too, as fossil fuels curtailed the denuding of forested lands to obtain charcoal for industry and wood fuel for heating.
Fossil fuels continue their dominance unabated – recent projections by the International Energy Agency show the world will be consuming ever more in the decades ahead as the United States becomes self sufficient and China and India become major importers of oil and coal, the better to bring their poor out of poverty. Despite all the fossil fuels consumed in recent centuries, the world’s available store continues to increase – at existing rates of consumption, the world has centuries of fossil fuel left.
The environment would be vulnerable, too. When governments and industry try to impose renewable technologies on us on a large scale, they lay waste to nature. Industrial wind farms have become major killers of birds, from the majestic bald eagle to tiny songbirds. Last year, according to the United States Geological Survey, wind turbines killed some 900,000 bats, in the process harming farmers who depend on bats for pest control – the USGS pegs the value of bats to the agricultural industry at $23-billion annually.
Wind’s ecological trail of destruction extends back to China, which supplies most of the rare earths required in the construction of wind turbines. When we in the West erect a wind turbine, reported an investigative article in the UK’s Daily Mail, we help create “a vast man-made lake of poison in northern China” that, according to locals, withers their crops and kills their animals.
Solar, too, is anything but benign. A major 2009 report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a pro-solar California-based environmental justice non-profit, described the many toxic threats that come of solar, often because the toxic chemicals involved in its manufacture are haphazardously processed in China. But problems abound in the U.S., too, where solar companies such as Solyndra and Abound Solar went bankrupt after their subsidies ran out, leaving behind sites abandoned with millions of pounds of toxic waste that taxpayers will somehow have to clean up. Most cash-strapped solar companies, in fact, don’t report the levels of toxic waste they generate to state authorities, as required by law, and they are even tight-lipped about their environmental procedures to their environmental allies.
“We find the overall industry response rate to our request for environmental information to be pretty dismal for an industry that is considered ‘green,’” the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition told Associated Press earlier this year, after only 14 of 114 companies deigned to respond to them.
Solar, like wind, also draws ire from environmentalists for the ecological implications of the enormous amount of land required — last year Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council sued the federal government to stop a giant solar plant that would have been built on 7.2 square miles in the Mojave Desert, threatening imperiled wildlife such as the golden eagle and the desert tortoise.
On the plus side, because solar hasn’t been widely adopted – it provides less than one-tenth of 1% of North America’s energy — the damage it could cause has been limited. And with subsidies now ending, solar will soon be fading into the sunset.
Fossil fuels also cause pollution in our society but – thanks to past environmental pressure – relatively little: The enormous volumes of fly-ash, mercury, SOX and NOX that once dirtied the environment belong to a bygone era. Today, BTU for BTU, fossil fuels are generally more benign to human health and the environment than wind and solar, not to mention ethanol and hydroelectricity, which have often devastating impacts through air pollution (ethanol) and flooding (in the case of China’s Three Gorges Dam, the casualties included the farms, fisheries and livelihoods of some 1.4 million people).
The chief remaining environmental knock against fossil fuels today relates to carbon dioxide emissions which, according to a major survey, most scientists believe to be beneficial – known as “nature’s fertilizer,” carbon dioxide has led to a greening of the planet, as satellite imagery over the past 30 years makes evident.
Fossil fuels have sustained the blows of their detractors and remain unambiguously ascendant. Wind and solar are undone, and unsustainable.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe. [email protected]