Earth Matters: Green energy part of climate change solution

The Island Now

By Jennifer Wilson-Pines

I just attended on online presentation by Dr. Chandu Visweswariah titled “An Inside Look: Radical Climate Action,” sponsored by Audubon NY.   It can be viewed here .

Dr. Visweswariah laid out the irrefutable science of climate change. He showed a graph of a reconstruction of climate changes over the last 800,000 years that tracks multiple ups and downs, but never exceeding 300 ppm, a point of equilibrium.

He demonstrated how CO2 levels, which have had natural swings over millennia, took a sharp upward turn about 200 years ago, aligned with the start of the Industrial Age, and haven’t looked back since.

Another upward spurt occurred after World War II in the 1950s. Each upward movement in greenhouse gasses is paralleled by a global increase in temperature. This isn’t a uniform effect; some areas are getting hotter faster, especially the poles, where ancient ice is melting at a rapid rate.

Don’t mistake weather, which is a minute-by-minute phenomenon, with global climate change. But changes in weather patterns can be driven by climate change – drought and ensuing fires, polar melting, more severe storm events, more hurricanes and typhoons. The ocean acidification that is killing coral around the world is a direct effect of oceans sequestering increased heat.

Scientists have warned that if we exceed 1.5 degrees centigrade in warming, our environment will suffer permanent, irreversible damage. We’re hovering around 1.1 degrees and business as usual will put us over that threshold around 2040.

Dr. Visweswariah gave a link to a carbon footprint calculator;  There you can input your consumption and get a carbon footprint for your household.  You’ll need a year of electric, gas or oil bills and the make, mileage and MPG on your vehicles to get started.

He then outlined a Seven Step program to lower carbon footprint. Those steps are: electric use, transportation, building heat, food and waste, goods and services, zip code overhead and offsets. Some of these items involve personal choices and changes and some are societal, which can be driven by changes in laws, voting with your investments, and supporting organizations that push for these changes.

So how green is your energy? It depends on how it’s created. Oil has the highest footprint, followed by gas. While natural gas is clean burning, the methane leaks during its production bring it up to the level of oil. Both involve massive infrastructure, drilling including fracking, and substantial damage to the local environment. They are also non-renewable resources – they aren’t making dead dinosaurs anymore. Known gas and oil reserves at current usage will be gone in a little over 50 years. That’s not going to be an issue for me, but my kids and grandkids will have to deal with the massive repercussions of that change.

So we’ll have to turn to green energy to replace those depleted resources and sooner rather than later. Green energy is a blanket term for solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, ocean, hydrogen and biomass. They are not a panacea; each has pluses and minuses.

A recent article in Newsday revealed that there are proposals from multiple companies to line the South Shore with wind turbines. They would be far enough offshore not to be an eyesore, but that energy has to come to land, which means miles of undersea cables laid in dredged channels and landing facilities to transmit that energy to the grid. They also create vibrations that transmit as sound to fish and sea mammals. Migrating birds either have to thread the needle or use limited energy to detour around the turbines. Because of the push by groups who are more concerned with actual environmental impact than bringing more power to people, design and lighting of turbines has improved.

Solar energy is great but not generally economical for households without subsidies.  Getting tiny bills each month can feel great, but the real question is how many years would that take to repay your investment? Large-scale facilities can produce a good volume of energy, but companies tend to want to place them in “vacant” land, which means it has trees, not houses on it. While the carbon sequestration value of a tree is less than the production of solar that would replace it, trees offer other value that solar does not: oxygen production, cooling, erosion prevention, habitat and food for birds and wildlife. Certain types of installations like central mirror arrays create so much heat that birds flying over are incinerated. Where solar belongs is already urbanized areas — those huge flat roofs on malls, big box stores, office buildings and as shade structures on parking lots. That will take zoning and government will to make happen.

Green energy sources are new and improving, but most of that improvement comes from pressure by groups and individuals who are not willing to accept that power to displace or kill wildlife is really green.  Good can always be better. Green energy will not get us the whole way there. Conservation is not a dirty word, it’s something to integrate into every level of society. Be the change.


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