So I have been writing this blog for about three weeks and have been both pleased and surprised by the positive and negative reviews. The most fascinating responses have been, not unexpectedly, from non-scientists of the progressive ilk. The number of activists who, when confronted with data, have responded with innuendo and assumptions of bad faith was disconcerting. The common viewpoint among some crowds appears to be that the climate change debate is a team sport and if you fail to support the team, in all things, then you are necessarily an enemy and a stooge (either witting or unwitting) of big oil. The level of debate appears to be: agree with me in all things or don’t talk to me. The most striking example of this was on Twitter where I politely asked the famous Dr. Mann why he was conflating “lukewarmers” with “deniers” and was immediately blocked. Irrespective of my detailed discussion of the IPCC report, I am informed that I am out of touch with the “consensus” and any number of shallow talking points have been directed my way. My most entertaining comment came from Ms. Sandy Garossino who insisted that:
Pointing out all the probs [of renewable energy] today is like heckling JFK in 1962 that a moon landing’s a nutty dream.
Similar sentiments have been expressed by many. It appears that the general consensus of activists is that renewable energy technologies have some magical property that means that none deserve any criticism or that the worst criticisms are merely “quibbles”. When used in renewable energy technologies, rare earths extracted from open pits in China apparently don’t cause cancer nor do they poison local waterways or groundwater supplies. Some hypothetical future destruction of boreal forests is far more important that grinding up real boreal forests. The decimation of lowland hardwood forests in the southeast United States don’t isolate biological communities and put them at risk from the effects of climate change as long as the wood is used to power German iron mills and German automobile facilities. The redirection of food crops to biofuel use and the indiscriminate destruction of tropical rainforests don’t create a 400 year biofuel carbon debt if used to run cars on the autobahns. Those endangered species will understand the destruction of their habitat because, after all, we had the best of intentions and, you know, climate change. Unfortunately, that is not how it really works. Real world policy decisions have real world environmental consequences. Slogans, loudspeakers and placards do not change the results of investigations nor do they erase critical data. If climate change is going to affect our ecosphere, then we have to allow that ecosphere some ability to adapt and that means preserving habitat.
I can’t say how many people directed me to details of Germany’s Energiewende. Germany is very much a success story in that they have developed policies to encourage solar and wind energy and to facilitate the connection of renewable energy to the power grid. Good government policies have aided in the movement to more wind and solar energy but bad policies are pulling nuclear power, with its extremely low carbon footprint and high reliability, off the table. Having read deeply on the subject, let me point out some lesser-discussed features of that program. In order to address the low power density of renewables, Germany has needed to off-shore its energy needs. It is relying on natural gas from Russia and high-carbon electricity from its neighbours to supplement its power grid when the wind is not blowing and the sun not shining. It projects using more coal for baseline power needs (as it retires its nuclear plants) and importing wood from the US and Canada (often virgin material in wood pellet form) as a “renewable, carbon neutral” fuel for biomass burning. Germany is importing biofuels from south and central American biofuel plantations, carved out of the rainforests, to run their automobiles. Most interestingly, the research indicates that the programs and policies of Energiewende to enhance energy efficiency did not significantly improve the energy efficiency from existing firms in some of its most energy intensive industries. “Innovation was observed to take place via new entrants in the market, rendering standard policies targeted at firm-level energy efficiency ineffective” (ref).
Even with all those downsides, the Germans definitely have a number of policies that Canadians have to take to heart. Our governments have to take back some control of our state-owned power utilities if only to force the utilities to simplify the inclusion of renewables into the power grid. I have communicated with the CEO of one former wind and wave renewable power company who claims that his company finally had to give up on BC due to the combined efforts of BC Hydro and the Environmental Assessment Office. While I am not in a position to confirm his claims, he has suggested that entrenched corporate policies are holding back the development of renewables in BC, which frankly, is not unbelievable. A streamlined permitting process needs to be put into place to allow for the implementation of pilot projects and the development of newer, technologies. Similarly, I believe that the government has a role to play in providing more incentives for renewable technology development. Dare I say perhaps even by redirecting some small proportion of carbon tax revenue to fund research into renewables. A revision of the tenure system for geothermal power development also might represent a reasonable policy approach. NGOs and activists, meanwhile, have to work to assist the development of renewables and acknowledge that sometimes the government might be going in the right direction and working with the government when it does.
Throughout my writing on the topic, I have not yet discussed the most important way to address our power needs: reducing energy demand and increasing energy efficiency. The best way to increase your power supply is not to build more power plants but to ensure that people use existing power more efficiently. BC Hydro has done a good start with its PowerSmart program but further policies/programs to reduce and/or redistribute our power usage would go a long way to helping us meet our goal of reducing our power usage and thus our use of fossil fuels. My next suggestion is not going to win me any friends but one of the features of the Smart Meter program in British Columbia is the possibility for time-of-use billing. I realize that even mentioning this topic is going to upset my libertarian friends who fear the “big brother” idea of the smart meter, but I disagree. Smart meters are simply a natural extension of free-market economics. No one resents a hotel-owner giving discounts in the off-season to encourage visitors but set the base power rate higher and then give a discount for using power during off-peak hours is somehow viewed as social engineering. My argument is: if you trust the market then what is more market-driven than power prices based on supply and demand? By reducing peak power needs we can avoid having to switch on Burnaby Thermal which goes a long way to reducing our local greenhouse gas emissions.
On a personal level, I think those concerned by climate change should do much more to address their personal use before going after others. The whole “do as I say not as I do” approach really turns me off. I have spent the last couple decades working to reduce my personal carbon footprint and thanks to a combination of good planning and good fortune have been able to live a very low carbon lifestyle. Perhaps some of the more famous activists could well do to reduce theirs. Using private buses to travel the country and living jet-setting lifestyles seem to represent the antithesis of the green message.
Finally, I think it is imperative that we need a clear break from the very recent belief that only progressives can be environmentally aware. Progressives clearly have strong environmental awareness, but their desire to socially engineer us all to meet their ideals turn off many mainstream families. As long as environmentalism is seen merely as an offshoot of progressive politics, we will never reach the consensus we need to make the important changes. While I am certainly not an expert on Green politics, I welcome the move by the Green Party to diversify its base and move to a more mainstream market-based economic platform.
There is a lot more to say on renewable energy alternatives and I will continue to beaver away at this blog on that and other topics, but as I do I would like to make these suggestions. When in doubt, assume that people who disagree with you are still good people and give them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t always have to agree but we do have to live with each other so we need to make it work. We live in a pluralistic society with a democratically elected government and sometimes other people’s priorities should be considered in the mix. Disagree with government policies all you like but recognize, that the current government was elected by your friends and neighbours and maybe there is a reason you are not in charge. If you can’t convince the majority in the rightness of your cause, then maybe it is not the majority that is to blame, maybe it is your message?