Lawrence Solomon: Fossil fuels now beat wind and solar on environmental as well as economic grounds

(November 14, 2013) When governments try to impose large-scale renewable technologies, they lay waste to nature.

By Lawrence Solomon for the National Post, published on November 14, 2013

Non-renewable energy is sustainable; renewable energy is not, not even close, not by any meaningful yardstick, not in our lifetime or in that of our children. Renewables cannot passably meet any of the important needs claimed by their champions, whether economic or environmental. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars governments have spent over the decades in aid of kick-starting a large-scale renewables industry, wind and solar complexes are generally incapable of helping humanity progress today or in the foreseeable future. Fossil fuels, in contrast, have gone from success to success for several centuries now, with no end in sight.

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.

Wind and solar power – the darlings of environmentalists and multinationals alike – meet but a picayune proportion of the world’s energy needs and even then they need a crutch – generally in the form of fossil fuel backup – to sustain them. Because the Sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, society would be vulnerable – unsustainable – if these renewable technologies tried to meet human needs on their own.

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.

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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3 Responses to Lawrence Solomon: Fossil fuels now beat wind and solar on environmental as well as economic grounds

  1. theo says:

    would like to see the sources of financial support of his studies and papers.
    comparing the black sheep of one industry (illegal mines in China) with the few good once of the other (filter systems in new coal stations in Germany) is something for the beer table but no real science.
    and seeing the increased CO2 levels as a benefit for nature is just over the top.
    hope there is something better out there…

    • Fritz says:

      It’s not at all clear why Theo thinks increased CO2 is NOT an environmental plus. The plants plant life require it to exist- why is that “over the top,” Theo? In fact, we could see our planet running low on oxygen if we don’t have sufficient plants to replace the oxygen consumed by the increasing numbers of animals and humans the Earth contains. Perhaps Al Gore will take up that crisis now that his previous one is debunked.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Rant – 4713 | Droveria

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