Sunday, March 4, 2012

Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual

By Brian Kelly, HCPC Restoration Coordinator

Sustainability makes sense. We can provide enough electricity to meet our needs through a shift to more sustainable practices according to a recent report by Synapse Energy Economics. This report describes a scenario where fossil-fueled and nuclear-powered electric production would be reduced and renewable energy sources would be increased. Aggressive energy efficiency and conservation practices would slow the future demand for electricity. The result would be an economically viable and environmentally responsible system that would effectively power our country.

Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011 is the name of the report that was the topic of a recent presentation sponsored by Oregon Rural Action in La Grande. At this gathering, I learned that changing to a more sustainable model would actually be less expensive over time than continuing onward with a “business as usual” model. Other benefits of this sustainable model include new jobs, healthier people, reduced water use for power plant cooling, less pollution and nuclear waste, lowered carbon emissions, and less use of natural gas.

Working for HCPC on energy issues, I’ve learned plenty about the problems of “business as usual”. Our local Wilderness areas have seen air pollution from the Boardman coal-burning electric plant. A proposed electric transmission line would affect thousands of acres of eastern Oregon including sage-grouse habitat. A local wind energy project proposal would impact important wildlife habitat affecting golden eagles, elk, deer, bats, hawks and wildlife habitat connectivity. Looking farther back in time, it’s worth noting that HCPC was born in 1965 to prevent dam building in Hells Canyon in pursuit of hydro-electric power. Our legacy runs deep for the protection of wild lands and wildlife in the face of energy development. So while we continue to protect and restore the Hells Canyon region in the face of destructive energy proposals, we can look to the Synapse report for direction toward a future where electric energy production is compatible with healthy ecosystems both locally and world wide.

According to the authors of the Synapse report, “The study does not lay out an optimized or detailed roadmap for this industry. Rather, it explores a fundamental change in direction. The intent is to challenge assumptions and inform our energy policy debate.”

It is time to challenge the assumptions upon which our current system is based.

· Nationally, about half of our electric energy production currently comes from coal. The environmental damage from the mining of coal is staggering and the pollution from burning coal is huge. Retrofitting smokestacks with pollution controls is very expensive. Coal is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions.

· The recent disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan should give us plenty of concern about the future of nuclear power.

· Natural gas is currently relatively inexpensive. However, it is a fossil fuel that emits carbon, and there is evidence that the fracking process used to obtain natural gas causes groundwater contamination.

It is time to increase energy efficiency and the role of renewable energy.

· The price of solar power has decreased and it’s projected to decline further, according to the report. Additionally, solar power that is generated locally does not need to be transported long distances. “Distributed generation” renewables do not require the huge transmission lines that are needed for centralized power plants.

· Wind energy would increase according to the model described in the report. While wind development will play an important role in the future, my experience informs me that it will be important for new wind developments to be carefully reviewed and appropriately located in order to prevent harm to wildlife, habitat and people. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the onshore wind potential in the U.S. will be found in the central states. As wind energy continues to develop, it will be important to develop adequate review processes to ensure necessary protections. Current review processes have not always been up to the task. It will also be important to research the effects of wind energy developments on birds, bats and wildlife habitat as well as the social, economic and health effects on people. Science-based research must be applied to wind proposals before they are allowed to be built in order to prevent problems. Otherwise, they will merely serve as a cautionary tale of regret.

· Conservation and energy efficiency programs would result in a net decrease in demand for electricity by the year 2050 averaging about 0.1% per year according to the report. Conservation must be an important part of the solution.

The Synapse report provides a vision where renewable energy and conservation allow us to move toward a more sustainable future. There will be a devilish amount of details to be sorted out and a tremendous amount of effort involved in bringing this vision toward reality. However, moving toward a goal of sustainability is a necessary part of the future vision for our planet.

You can read the report Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011 by Synapse Energy Economics at the following website:

http://www.synapse-energy.com/Downloads/SynapseReport.2011-11.CSI.BBAU-2011.11-037.pdf

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