Sunday, December 2, 2012

Siting issues

More evidence to support my contention that there are perfectly respectable local environmental concerns regarding the siting of just about any industrial energy plant, even renewable ones.

The first is a nuanced and intelligent summary of the state of play in the UK wind power industry from today's Guardian, the immediate occasion for which stems from a nice community-based turbine project of the sort I've been advocating for years:

The second is the planning battle in Waldo County's own Searsport, which we've been following for many years since a major LNG terminal was first proposed, then rejected. The latest development is a propane storage tank of significant scale, not quite the level of the formerly proposed LNG system, but a major imposition nevertheless. The controversy continues, exacerbated by some bad decisions. On Facebook recently we saw evidence of some questionable behavior by local Searsport police at the public hearing -- they removed an elderly man who did not seem to be doing anything wrong. I would hope the city government investigates carefully, to make sure they don't have a policing problem.

Since my computer died and so we haven't had chance to go into much of this material in class, for those of you who didn't know, LNG or liquid natural gas is different from LPG or liquid petroleum gas, the most common commercial variant of which in the US is propane. Natural gas is found by drilling for gas and increasingly from fracking, or hydraulic fracturing technique, and may then be liquified for shipping, although most natural gas used in the US is delivered in gaseous form via pipeline. Propane is a petroleum distillate and comes from "cracking" or fractional distillation of crude oil and natural gas, not often directly from fracking. It is nearly always liquified for convenient shipping. There is quite a bit of confusion of these issues in the public mind, since "cracking" and "fractional distillation" and "hydraulic fracking" and even LPG and LNG are all easily confused terms. The differences do need to be carefully teased out for policy purposes. You can't regulate both fuels using identical techniques, short of an outright ban, because they are such different materials. An outright ban would require serious reworking of our political system to achieve, requiring us to question basic assumptions about capitalism and economic and property rights, assumptions I'd like to see questioned, but that are very unlikely to be so questioned politically in the US for years or even decades to come. Additionally, propane is an important fuel in rural areas, while gas is more important in the cities, so there are geographical complexities.

Neither one is good for the planet's climate, except in the cases that they are used a) to replace coal, or b) to back up intermittent supplies of wind or solar power, in which case they do make a contribution, although this too has to be considered carefully. US climate emissions are down in recent years primarily because of the cheap supply of natural gas, some from fracking wells, and this drop can no longer be ascribed primarily to the recession, which is very good news. But there are concerns over the environmental impact of the gas wells, and methane leakage from natural gas production and distribution systems may be a significant contribution to climate altering tropospheric methane, so we may not be doing any good, or at least as much good as we think we are.

I've been in the business of studying climate and energy for a long time and I think I know the science and economics well enough to say there are no easy answers here. The safety issues and climate benefits of fracking wells are both highly questionable. I'd love to be able to do without. I'd also like to be able to do without propane.

But we're going to need very much more aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy development to do so, and so we''ll need to site more wind turbines, build more transmissions lines, put up more solar panels, switch out more inefficient appliances, and insulate more homes.

None of which, especially the wind turbines and transmission lines, is likely to be particularly popular either. I've been to a lot of planning board meetings and public hearings now for wind power development in Maine, and it isn't much fun to attend these things, even as the scientist with the white hat. You get yelled at fairly easily. Rationality does not prevail. There's a lot of complexity involved in wind turbine siting too.

The upshot is, nobody wants any kind of energy facility in their backyard.

In other words, NIMBY's are ubiquitous, and so we need a sensible system of national and state-level prioritization and planning for energy development.

It needs to start with very much more aggressive measures in energy efficiency and renewable energy development. That isn't an easy answer, but it's at least a good answer, based on the science and economics.

Which is why, I suppose, when we first began to think about all these problems many years ago, we put renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate change education in the curriculum for every Unity College student, regardless of major, and we built a Sustainable Energy Management program that has been fairly successful at training students in these issues at the level of professionality and complexity required.

No comments: