Opinion: Rapid transition to industrial renewables ’causes astounding environmental damage’

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Suzanna Jones of Walden, Vermont.

Vermont has a reputation for producing sturdy New England farm folk — hardscrabble people who lived full lives under challenging conditions. Our neighbors, Frank and Virginia, were prime examples. Living well into their 80s, they never owned a car or a phone, and never went on a vacation. They saved and reused everything, and grew their own food. Despite — or probably because of — the simplicity of their lives, they were happy.

Now there is a different kind of folk in the Green Mountain landscape. You’ll find them rushing to the airport in their hybrid car, smartphone glued to their hands, trying to catch a plane for their vacation abroad. Often well-meaning and “progressive,” they tend to look down on people like Frank and Virginia for not being “green” enough. The reality, of course, is that these self-described environmentalists have a far greater impact on the Earth than those older Vermonters did.

Wikimedia Commons/Stausifr

“But solar is much more than just glass. One example? Like wind power, it requires the environmentally devastating — and fossil-fuel based — mining of rare earth metals.”

Mainstream notions of monetary and career “success” lead us to dismiss simpler ways of life. Unfortunately, this leaves us utterly wedded to the economic system that lies behind all our environmental problems, including climate change.

Bill McKibben’s recent appearance in Hardwick to promote his new book, “Falter,” got me thinking about this. Back in 2008 McKibben correctly identified our growth-obsessed economy as the source of the ecological collapse we face today, explaining that when the economy grows larger than necessary to meet our basic needs, its social and environmental costs outweigh any benefits. He pointed out that our consumerist way of life — in which we strive for more no matter how much we already have — is one of the ways corporations keep our bloated economy growing. The irony, he added, is that perennial accumulation does not even make us happy. But now, sadly, McKibben studiously avoids criticizing the very economy he once fingered as the source of our environmental crisis.

During his talk he referred to Exxon’s “big lie”: The company knew about climate change long ago but hid the truth. Ironically, McKibben’s presentation did something similar by hiding the fact that his only “solution” to climate change – the rapid transition from fossil fuels to industrial renewables — actually causes astounding environmental damage. Solar power, he said, is “just glass angled at the sun, and out the back comes “modernity.” But solar is much more than just glass. One example? Like wind power, it requires the environmentally devastating — and fossil-fuel based — mining of rare earth metals. And the “modernity” coming out the back? That is the lifestyle that is killing the planet.

McKibben extolled the virtues of Green Mountain Power’s industrial “renewable” developments, failing to mention that GMP sells the renewable energy credits from those projects to out-of-state utilities, thereby subsidizing the production of dirty energy elsewhere. He also neglected to say that one of GMP’s parent companies is tar sands giant Enbridge, which owns a $1.5 billion stake in the Dakota Access Pipeline and is currently working to use Vermont as a corridor for future fracked-gas transport.

McKibben once claimed that “every turn of the blade” of an industrial wind turbine “reduces fossil fuel consumption somewhere.” When the renewable energy credits are sold, however, this is simply untrue. And while the production and installation of every turbine has serious environmental costs, every reduction in consumption really does reduce fossil fuel use somewhere, while simultaneously reducing environmental impacts of all sorts.

Renewables only make sense in tandem with drastic reductions in energy consumption, and are best implemented through small-scale, grid-free efforts. But what we have instead is the continued corporate marketing of a psychotic American dream — now powered by “renewables.” This co-opted response to climate change is not about protecting nature from the ever-expanding human nightmare, it is about sustaining the comforts and luxuries to which we feel entitled. It is business-as-usual disguised as concern for the Earth. It is utterly empty, but it serves the destructive economy.

Though not McKibben’s intent, this is what he implicitly supports.

Climate change is a crisis, but it is only one of many ways the planet is being destroyed. Changing the fuel that runs the system that is killing the planet is not a solution. An effective response would involve shifting towards the way Frank and Virginia lived. It won’t look cool, or stroke the attention-seeking narcissism of social media addicts, but it would have immediate benefits.

That shift will require a major rethinking of our lives and economy; it asks us to have the maturity, courage, humility and wisdom to put nature and her needs first. McKibben deserves credit for sounding the alarm about climate change early on, but now he should tell people the unvarnished truth: that if we cannot sacrifice our comforts, luxuries and rapid mobility because we love this Earth, then there really is no hope.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stausifr
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7 thoughts on “Opinion: Rapid transition to industrial renewables ’causes astounding environmental damage’

  1. O’Rourke, running for President, is touting wind, but he is confused and ill informed
    Most of the wind turbines are in the TEXAS unpopulated Panhandle and the Gulf Coast.
    One has the good winds from the North, the other gets the onshore winds that build as the land heats up each day, and die off in the evening.
    That fortunate geography in Texas DOES NOT EXIST IN NEW ENGLAND, AND IN THE US SOUTHEAST, AND IN THE US NORTHWEST, all of which have LOW capacity factors.
    So it is total nonsense for NE folks to think wind will be saving us with a capacity factor of less than 0.29.

    Of course solar in New England will not save us anything at all, and certainly not with a miserable capacity factor of 0.14
    Most of that solar occurs during midday when demand is moderate, i.e., MASSIVE DUCK CURVES, a la southern California and southern Germany.
    Solar has a terrible habit of getting high at midday (when demand is low) and then passing out in late afternoon/early evening (when demand is high), not to reappear for work until late in the next morning, somewhat like a habitual drunk sobering up. His work output is near zero, or zero, about 70% of the hours of the year.

    The drunk does not like to work much during rainy, overcast or snowy weather, and his work output jumps up and down with variable cloudiness. The drunk’s erratic behavior requires the other generators to inefficiently ramp up and down their outputs and inefficiently make more frequent starts and stops, all at no cost to the drunk. And that drunk-like behavior is coddled by government programs and heavily subsidized!!

    Such a drunk is much loved by various good-doers and vote-trawling legislators using other people’s money. The drunk, an occasional “worker”, enjoys various generous government programs to bribe him to show up at all, such as upfront cash grants, upfront tax credits, low-cost loans, generous, above-market, feed-in tariffs, production tax credits, and loan interest and asset depreciation write-offs to avoid paying income taxes. All that enables the drunk to claim he is equivalent and competitive with other workers. What more could this high-maintenance freeloader ask for?

    What kind of worker is that? There is nothing reliable or productive (“on demand”) about him!!
    He does not deserve to be coddled.
    No wonder he is behaving like a spoiled brat, i.e., disturbing the peace on the grid.
    And the parents (the owners), whose children are disturbing the peace on the grid, complain they, after all these years, finally have to pay someone to foolproof the grid against such unruly brats and maintain the peace on the grid, i.e., the utility, GMP in Vermont, which has determined 70 of the utility’s 150 substations will eventually need upgrades to add more solar to avoid “transmission ground fault overvoltage,” or TGFOV) See note.
    Those parents would rather have others (ratepayers and taxpayers; carbon taxes?) do the paying, as usual. How else would they be able to continue claiming, “solar is competitive”?

    Innocent bystanders (other ratepayers and taxpayers) have to foot the bill to clean up the mess, i.e., put more money in Blittersdorf’s silk-lined pockets, who already is a big time multi-millionaire. Totally insane!!

    That is what happens when a bunch of nitwit bureaucrats meddle in the electric power sector.
    The same types meddle in the VT health sector and VT education sector, and we all know how expensive they have become.
    When will all this nonsense end?

    And SOCIALIST Bernie Sanders, with three houses, and a $70,000 Audie (supporting the GERMAN worker), and flying FOR FREE on private planes while spewing CO2 (his foundation is buying carbon offsets, a cost of “doing business”), and not liking a proper barrier to protect the US southern border (enticing future Democrat voters to enter), and having his own tax-exempt foundation (don’t pay me, as I would have to pay income taxes, pay my foundation!), and promising more and more goodies to his favored supporters, including forgiveness of student debt (setting a poor example for future behavior) to raise his poll numbers. He is campaigning for even more US-style Socialism to benefit his foundation, a la Clintons and a la Gore, all smooth-operating, self-serving hucksters!!

    NOTE: If solar system owners were required to put in batteries (at their own expense) to smooth their electricity output, before feeding into distribution or high voltage grids, all these problems would not exist, and there would be no duck curves, because the batteries would absorb any excess electricity during midday, and give it up during peak hours in late afternoon/early evening to help reduce the GMP peak load on the NE grid.
    That would be the logical solution.
    Solar would finally become a really useful contributor, like the “on demand” traditional sources (oil, gas, coal, nuclear, hydro), and not just a subsidy-sucking disturber of the grid and a burden on traditional generators.

  2. And I read where ‘each turn of a wind blade’ potentially spells death to the local bird population. Huge declines of bird populations are now documented within the ocean wind farms off Ireland.

  3. No shortage of hypocrites in the climatetardism field. The King
    Man Bear Pig *aka albert gore* uses energy at the rate of a small
    city. Every yearly meeting of the climate mongers is at a luxury hotel that they all get to show off their private jets at, they apparently never
    heard of video conferencing. And as always any changes they force through will have considerably more ill effect than we experience now.

  4. Wonderful piece. Having grown up with parents and grandparents who survived the depression and world wars, I witnessed how things can and should be done. People only bought what they couldn’t make themselves, then they took care of those things and eventually passed them on to others. They worked hard and saved their money. They didn’t look to government to nurture, sustain and support them. They taught strong values to their children. They lived sustainable lives without even thinking about it or putting it on a bumper sticker just because living that way made sense. They raised their own food and canned, dried, and froze much of what they grew to help get them through long winters. Today I marvel at young people who worship at the alter of climate change and sustainability but who won’t put up a clothes line, won’t turn down the heat in the winter, won’t shut off lights in rooms they aren’t using, don’t take care of their possessions, drive their car to the gym to work out, shop as a hobby when they don’t need anything and have to rent storage lockers to store all of the junk they have bought that they don’t need. These same folks have bumper stickers on their high powered SUV.s touting their love of the planet and then drive from Connecticut, Mass, and NY to their second or third home in Vermont/NH/Maine every weekend to indulge in more activities that are totally dependant on fossil fuels. What a strange world we live in……………..

  5. Very interesting and informative article,. You mentioned things that were oblivious to me. I learned something. Thank You Suzanna

  6. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, that was the way I was raised. We all worked on the farm and got along without all the ‘stuff ‘ that is needed today. No wonder all these young families can only make it if both spouses work and leave their children in the care of others.

    • Mary Daly, Good point. To many people spinning in circles. Our nation would be in a much better place if life was lived such that one parent could support the family. Their are drivers, beyond just people wanting more, but it would be so good if people valued time at home, and raised their own children … including educating their own children. Perhaps in a co-op situation with a few other families that were educating their children. Clearly there is a huge cost to the “free” state-controlled education.

      “Free” state-controlled education:
      * Is an extremely expensive model – both per pupil and in tax burden, which happens to be a driver for both parents working.
      * Does not lend to learning. Sitting in rows looking at the front of a room is not a great learning environment. Learning by doing with a child’s mom or dad would be much more engaging and much more productive.
      * Is very much the source of why so many young people have no real knowledge of history or ability to figure things out. How else can one explain over 50% of this population being open to trying socialism, which is a system where someone else is responsible for your well being … which has never delivered on its promises and has instead left a path of destruction and despair.

      It would be great for people to rethink this shallow hamster wheel of life.

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