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The ostriches in the Bush administration (and the oil companies whose interests they represented) did not want to admit it, but the rest of the world recognizes the reality of global warming and the need to reduce our carbon footprint. To do this, we must increase our supply of renewable energy. Virtually everyone is for renewable energy, and the development of solar, wind and hydroelectric power can and should be an international priority. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that there are significant problems, both environmental and economic, with the development of such alternative energy sources, and the political issues involved in the development are neither simple, nor one-dimensional.
Economically, wind and solar power cost more, per kilowatt hour, then fossil fuel technology. To be sure, if a tax was imposed for the adverse environmental impacts of fossil fuel plants, the cost of renewable energy would be closer to the cost of fossil fuel technology, but it would probably still not be economically competitive. Furthermore, wind and solar, and, for that matter, hydro, are not always reliable: the sun does not always shine, the wind does not always blow, and rivers are subject to seasonal variations in water flow.
There are also environmental costs associated with hydro, solar and wind power. Although these environmental impacts are less serious than the adverse air pollution impacts and greenhouse gases from fossil fuel plants and less serious than the severe adverse consequences of nuclear power, the environmental "costs" of renewable power are still nevertheless real. Damming rivers for hydroelectric facilities interferes with aquatic species, can deplete dissolved oxygen in stream levels below the dams, and may result in the loss of a significant aesthetic resource. The manufacture of solar panels requires a fair amount of energy and use of non-renewable materials. Wind turbines, which can be 450 feet tall, create serious problems with noise, strobe effects on neighbors, bird mortality, and may have a devastating impact upon the character of the local community, especially a community located in a scenic area which depends on tourist revenue. As with nonrenewable energy, these environmental costs must be weighed against the benefit of specific projects. As a society, we can and should place a higher value on renewable energy than nonrenewable energy; but it should be remembered that renewable energy, like non-renewable energy, has both environmental and economic costs.
Thirty years ago, environmental advocates believed that renewable energy would be best served by deregulation of the electric industry. In an ideal deregulated environment, a family that put up its own solar panels, backyard windmill, or other alternative energy source, would be able to sell the energy to the grid, thus reducing their own electric bills, and generating a social benefit. Today, the reality is far different. For the most part, renewable energy sources are now controlled by large corporate interests who seek to utilize federal and state subsidies to generate power, for purely economic benefit. Whether this power is ultimately saleable depends, to a large extent, upon extremely esoteric bidding rules set up by Independent System Operators, which do not necessarily provide for environmental benefits. The developers of this energy have no reason to care about the environmental consequences of their action: they are simply in the business of building power generating machines, and making as much money as possible from these machines.
Hydroelectric power, when it operates, is inexpensive, and has relatively few adverse environmental impacts compared to the benefits that it produces. Peter spent two years working for the Green Island Power Authority in connection with its efforts to develop a modern 100 MW hydroelectric facility. The proposed facility would have been publicly owned and would have generated power to be used for economic development for the Capital District. The facility would have replaced the existing 90-year-old School Street hydroelectric facility. Ultimately, the Green Island Power Authority was defeated by a Canadian multinational company called Brascan, which, with the active assistance of state regulators, had been able to obtain the right to operate the existing hydroelectric facility from its previous owner, the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. As a result, the old facility will continue to generate only 40 MW of power, which will be owned and sold to the electric grid by Brascan for the benefit of its shareholders. This facility, unlike the proposed Green Island plant, will continue to kill billions of fish every year, and will ensure that Cohoes Falls, the site where the Hardenosaunee peacemaker established the Iroquois Confederacy, will continue to be bare rock, rather than a flowing waterfall.
The construction of an industrial "windfarm" consisting of a row of 450 foot high structures, occupying miles of terrain, frequently along scenic hillsides, has considerable environmental consequences. Peter has represented community groups, in Cherry Valley and in the Catskills, where residents have legitimate concerns about the impact of these wind turbines. Corporate interests have wanted to site these turbines as close as 1000 feet to neighboring residences, where individuals will be subject to continual noise impacts, and will have light shining through the wind turbines creating a "strobe" effect on their homes. Individuals who have lived in a community for many years, face the danger that their way of life will be destroyed, for a wind turbine which may generate only a minimal amount of saleable electricity. Furthermore, the electricity will be sold to the grid for the benefit of large corporate developers; it will not be used to meet the immediate local needs for electricity, nor will the economic benefits from the sale go to the local community. In such cases, the relatively small amount of extra electricity from a "renewable" source does not justify the significant local harm that may occur.
Renewable energy is a very good thing, and all true environmentalists should support it. However, not all developers play a positive social role, nor are all renewable energy projects environmentally beneficial. In addition, questions arise with any specific project as to who reaps the economic benefit from the sale of power, and at what cost to the general public. The issues are complicated, and there are important questions that must be addressed with every project.