No Really Green Energy

All forms of energy have benefits and risks. Inexpensive fossil fuels, for example, played a part in the remarkable regrowth of forests in Europe and the United States. (I explain below.) Of course, they also produce pollution. You have to look at the whole cycle, from production, to deployment & use to final disposal. We often see only one part. That is why it was interesting to come across an article about riots at a Chinese solar panel factory. The Chinese villagers said the solar plant was poisoning the air and water.

It seems to me that the most environmentally friendly “new” technology is natural gas. New methods have made massive quantities of this available in the United States. It is cheap; it is available AND it is American. In addition, gas can be used in existing technologies to replace coal fired plants. Gas produces very little pollution and only around 1/3 the CO2 of coal. There is no need to subsidize natural gas production or provide loan guarantees.

It is beyond my understanding why so few mainstream environmentalists are embracing gas production, which will create large numbers of American jobs. I am not saying that there are not challenges. We NEED regulations and we need to work on developing better techniques of extraction. But the idea should be to improve, not impede.

Natural gas is not perfectly clean. NO form of energy is perfectly clean, as we see from the Chinese solar plant example. Our only viable option is a diversified energy portfolio, taking into account the full life cycle of the energy source and trying to understand collateral connections. There is no one best solution and the most appropriate choices will change as society and technologies develop.

One thing for sure is that fossil fuels will remain a big, probably the biggest part of our energy portfolio for the coming decades. This is just true. We can complain about it and wish it were different, but as my father used to say, put your wish in one hand and sh*t in the other and see which weighs more. We need to recognize and work within real possibilities.

How Fossil Fuels Helped Save Forests

Forests in America and Europe reached their nadir between 1900 and 1930. Massive efforts to plant trees and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service, the discovery and promulgation of sustainable forestry methods and organization (such as the American Tree Farm System) all played crucial roles in bring back forests and avert the “timber famine” predicted by experts and leaders like Theodore Roosevelt & Giford Pinchot, among others. But equally important was a shift in demand. Horsepower provided by actual horses requires pastures and pastures preclude forests. When horses were replaced by tractors & cars, land devoted to growing feed equine transport could be converted to other uses. There was also the shift from wood. Wood was still a dominant fuel in 1900 and people cut forests for fuel. Beyond that, it is not well understood by many people, but an important collateral product of fossil fuels is fertilizer, which allows greater production on less land, leaving – again – other land free to revert to forest.

Today there are more growing trees in the U.S. than there were in 1850. Take a look at pictures from the Civil War and compare them to what you see today and you will notice the absence of forests then and their presence now. The regrowth of the forests in American and Europe is one of the biggest – and most overlooked – success stories of the latter half of the 20th Century.

One of my fears re a possible biofuels boom is that we may reverse this as land currently occupied by forests is again put into service for the intensive production of biofuel.

My pictures are not particularly related to the text. I took them today in my yard.  The top picture shows my new banana trees.  Bananas are not really trees; they are the world’s largest herb. The other picture is the tree in my yard leafing out and flowering.