Guest editorial: Park City spreads false climate solutions
April 28, 2017
On Friday, April 21, Park City Municipal Corporation's (PCMC) Environmental Sustainability Department delivered an "Earth Day 2017 Edition" newsletter. The newsletter reminded us of PCMC's "ambitious climate goal" involving the achievement of a net-zero carbon footprint by 2032. PCMC plans to achieve this goal through "green solutions" including solar installations, purchasing wind power from Rocky Mountain Power, and implementing efficiency measures.
Unfortunately, PCMC's plans are neither green, nor solutions.
The sun offers near-infinite energy, but the problem is harnessing that energy. Harnessing this energy requires solar cells and solar cell production emits greenhouse gases worse than carbon dioxide. Energy scholar Ozzie Zehner explains that the solar cell manufacturing process is one of the largest emitters of hexafluoroethane, nitrogen trifluoride, and sulfur hexafluoride. Zehner writes, "As a greenhouse gas hexafluoroethane is twelve thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide … nitrogen trifluoride is seventeen thousand times more virulent than carbon dioxide, and sulfur hexafluoride, the most treacherous greenhouse gas…is twenty-five thousand times more threatening (than carbon dioxide)."
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says, as the solar industry expands, "The most widely used solar photovoltaic panels have the potential to create a huge new wave of electronic waste at the end of their useful lives, which is estimated to be 20 to 25 years." And, new solar photovoltaic technologies "use extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks…"
The solar industry currently supplies less than a hundredth of 1 percent of America's electricity. As this industry grows, solar cell production will emit more of the most dangerous greenhouse gases and create more toxic waste. Zehner says it best: "Considering the extreme risks and limitations of today's solar technologies, the notion that they could create any sort of challenge to the fossil-fuel establishment starts to appear not merely optimistic, but delusional."
Like the energy offered by the sun, wind is a renewable energy. Turbines used to harvest wind energy, however, require the fossil fuel infrastructure to manufacture them. When considering the ability of wind turbines to replace greenhouse gas emissions, we must account for the mining, manufacturing, transporting, constructing, land-clearances, maintaining, decommissioning, and waste that support wind turbines.
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To harvest wind, turbines must be placed where wind blows. This is often in remote and fragile natural communities. To build wind farms, land must be cleared. This involves deforestation. To transport energy harnessed by turbines from wind farms requires roads, power lines, and transformers. The greenhouse gases emitted by deforestation, alone, may cancel benefits wind farms provide.
Zehner makes a strong case against wind power – and all alternative energies for that matter – while examining the popularly recited possibility that the US could attain 20% wind energy by 2030. He says this achievement might not remove a single fossil-fuel plant from the grid and explains, "There is a common misconception that building additional alternative-energy capacity will displace fossil-fuel use; however…producing more energy simply increases supply, lowers cost, and stimulates additional energy consumption." Zehner cites analysts who argue that wind turbines in Europe "have not reduced the region's carbon footprint by a single gram." The classic example is Spain "which prided itself on being a solar and wind power leader over the last two decades only to see its greenhouse gas emission rise 40% over the same period."
So, alternative energies aren't alternative energies, they're additional energies.
Efficiency measures often make the problem worse, too. We've known this for a longtime through Jevons' Paradox. In 1865, English economist William Stanley Jevons, studying how James Watt's steam engine improved coal efficiency, proved that, in capitalist societies, when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, the rate of that resource's consumption rises because demand rises.
If we truly love the land that supports us, we'll drop the false solutions and undermine this culture's capacity to consume.