...By Warren Kirshenbaum
Renewable energy is not yet able to be produced in quantities that will satisfy global energy demand, and renewable energy is more expensive than energy produced from fossil fuels, but great strides have been made in recent years in these areas. Furthermore, the costs that the production of fossil fuels are imposing, both on our environment, and financially on the companies producing oil and gas are not factored into the cost per gallon or kilowatt hour of energy production, and perhaps this is a line item that we should start to factor into the cost of the production of energy from fossil fuels if we are going to make a push toward serving the world’s energy needs with renewable resources.
This year, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (which was both the biggest oil spill in U.S. history and the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry) released 185 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for about three months and has inflicted devastating environmental and psychological damage on the coastal communities in the Gulf, affecting tourism, fishing and drilling, as well as subjecting residents to ongoing restrictions on fishing and shrimping that have affected the livelihoods of thousands of people. BP’s Gulf Oil Spill resulted in the deaths of 11 workers on the rig and injuries to 17 others. BP’s financial expenditures from the oil spill have so far reached $3.12 billion, excluding the $20 billion compensation fund they have set up to reimburse residents and businesses for their losses. Also this year we endured the Copiapo mining accident in Chile, which occurred when the copper/gold mine owned by San Esteban Mining Company collapsed and 33 men were trapped 2,300 ft below ground for 69 days. Fortunately, all of the 33 men were rescued with only one man suffering from pneumonia, and a few others experiencing dental problems. The cost to rescue the men was $20 million. The San Esteban Mining Company has allegedly violated mining regulations previously, and 8 of its employees have died at the mine in 12 years. Adding to the year’s disasters at fossil fuel production sites is the Pike River Mine accident in New Zealand where an explosion at the coal mine has left 29 miners trapped 4,900 feet from the mine’s entrance. The miners are still trapped in the mine and may not be alive. Gas sampling is being tested to ensure that any accidental spark will not ignite the mine when search and rescue operations are undertaken. The Gulf Oil Spill, Copiapo mining accident, and Pike River Mine accident were stark reminders that our pursuit of energy derived from fossil fuels is causing an irreversible deterioration of our planet, its natural resources, our environmental balance, and is subjecting us to unacceptable losses in human life.
There are a multitude of renewable resources, but this post will focus on solar and hydro energy production, as these methods of renewable energy production are, in my opinion, poised to experience significant growth in the next few years.
Solar energy production is significantly more expensive than hydro, due to the cost of the solar panels themselves. Hydro has languished for decades as a method of creating renewable energy, mainly due to the environmental objections that a hydro project creates, and the expensive federal regulatory requirements of such projects. However, both forms of renewable energy are attractive. Solar projects, unlike wind projects do not create a danger to birds, cattle, and other animals, solar fields are not large and aesthetically displeasing, and do not generate loud whirring sounds that intrude on people’s quality of life. Consequently, as solar installations have very little negative environmental effect, they are generally easy to permit. Solar energy is, however, expensive to produce, as the technology that underpins the solar panels have traditionally made the installation of solar fields expensive enough to impede their development as a commercial enterprise. As with all technology, as solar technology develops, its cost has begun to decline, which should make solar projects more viable. Hydro, is very clean and unobtrusive to the environment, and is relatively safe to produce, but it can affect the migratory pathways of fish, and a dam breach could be detrimental to downstream human habitats. Consequently, new dams have not been constructed in many years. In fact, the stock of dams has decreased over the decades. Moreover, the prospect of new dams being built is relatively slim (due to the environmental challenges and the time period involved in getting Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval). Inorder for hydro production to increase, the capacity of existing facilities would need to be expanded. Legislative changes that limit environmental objections to the process of FERC approval, renewal, and re-licensing would need to be implemented to help to stimulate hydro production, this will require intensive lobbying, but it can be done.
Nevertheless, the point being made here is that, despite the higher cost of producing renewable energy, the cost of energy production from fossil fuels is enormous,not only the monetary cost, but the environmental cost as well as the cost of human life. This is more of an IOU being tagged to the planet than a current cost, which leads to the conclusion that we have no choice but to pay the higher monetary price for renewable energy now and retire the bigger IOU that future generations will inherit.