Monday, January 19, 2009

Brother, Can You Paradigm?

This week's newspaper article:

What’s all the fuss about renewable energy? And what is renewable energy anyway?

We can start with some definitions.

Renewable energies are energy sources that naturally self-replenish into perpetuity without harm to the planet’s ecosystem, and they give off no toxic byproducts in the course of their capture or usage. Let’s call this clean energy.

Non-renewable energy is characterized as being derived from a finite earth element such as coal or oil - probably extracted from the earth at the expense of the ecosystem. These resources are generally messy to extract, and produce toxic waste that humans must clean up or somehow sweep under the rug. Let’s call these dirty energies.

The sun and wind are pure examples of renewable energy; neither must be “extracted” and they don’t pollute.

But what about clean coal? Is that renewable?

Not so much.

Coal - now popularly characterized by the industry as “clean coal” - does not replenish itself. We could bury more dinosaurs (if there were any left around) and wait for a few million years to get another several decades of energy, but that’s not what I call sustainable. And so-called clean coal technology may emit fewer toxins than your grandfather’s coal plant, but toxins are emitted nonetheless, albeit in smaller quantities.

Meanwhile, the coal-burning process creates millions of tons of toxic waste.

Recently in Tennessee, almost two million cubic yards of fly ash - a byproduct of coal incineration containing toxic heavy metals - broke through an earthen dam spilling onto hundreds of acres before making its way into a tributary of the Tennessee River polluting the drinking water source for millions downstream.

That’s the great risk of dirty energy.

Proponents of clean coal will argue that being less bad is good. Is it?

Consider this. If you’re driving to New York, but you’re headed in the direction of Los Angeles, will driving slower ever get you where you want to go?

Scientists expect the sun to pump life-giving rays to our planet for billions of years before it dies out. And wind will be around as long as we remember not to blow up the planet.

Contrast that to projections for dirty energies, which tend to be predicted in denominations of years or decades.

Decades versus billions of years? Imagining that comparison on a graph, the clean energy line would be off the page and the dirty energy line would be a tiny, tiny blip.

Moving as fast as possible to implement renewable energy is a progressive AND a conservative approach. Conversion from dirty to clean energy will create home-grown jobs and will result in greater security and predictability in our energy markets. The idea of renewable energy is not left or right, it is decidedly forward.

Staying with the current system - one that will run out of gas, so to speak, within the lifetime of our grandchildren - is a truly radical approach.

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