Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Opinion Page: Marcellus Side Effects
 There are a lot of side effects to Marcellus Shale drilling: compressor explosions, pipeline explosions, air pollution, spills, injection well earthquakes, fugitive greenhouse gas emissions… But perhaps the most serious side effect is that we get so involved in focusing on the impacts of industrialized gas drilling that we forget the problem isn’t fracking.

The real problem is our addiction to fossil fuels. And the lack of vision of our elected officials and captains of industry.

I know; it’s nigh to heresy mentioning this up on day 5 of the 30-day comment period New York’s proposed high volume hydrofracking regulations. But maybe it’s the focused attention on gas drilling that has me poking my pen through the paper windows to let in some light (gray day though it is).  

For the last four years I have happily scribbled my name on the bottom of tuition checks so my son could study engineering. In return, he educated me on how engineers work. The most important lesson: how one frames the problem to be solved.

Right now energy companies are focusing their talent, money and resources to exploit gas and oil reserves. As those reserves become more difficult to reach, they develop increasingly invasive technologies for mineral extraction. Like fracking. Developing those technologies means lots of research, lots of grants, and billions of dollars in subsidies – not to mention rock-bottom lease prices on public lands.

What if we ask different questions:
  • How to heat and cool buildings
  • How to provide light
  • How to provide energy to run pumps, machinery
  • How to cook and refrigerate things
  • How to move people and freight
Finding an answer to “how to move things” or “how to light an interior space” is very different from solving the problem of “how to get really tiny bits of hydrocarbon out of rocks”.  For example, putting sun tubes into buildings can bring natural light into the interior and decrease the need for electricity. So can changing the light bulbs to fluorescent or LED and even going to bed earlier in the winter.

People like to say that wind and solar energy “can’t solve our country’s energy needs.” We don’t need them to “solve” it all – just provide appropriate energy solutions. And we need to broaden our mind regarding how these resources are tapped.

Wind, for example: do we need huge turbines? There are vertical turbines, and smaller wind collectors that can fit on the sides of buildings or even under eaves. Scientists are even looking at how materials, blown out of shape by wind, create energy when they snap back to their original position – like aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze.

There are just as many ways to harness the sun’s power – from passive building features that warm or cool homes to solar arrays that produce electricity. Why not use them?

Why not harvest the methane produced in landfills and dairy barns? Why not use marginal land to grow willows and other renewable biofuels? Why not harness the power of human movement? What if we generated electricity with treadmills in fitness centers?

Bradford County, PA south of Troy
What if (gasp!) we simply used our resources more efficiently? We could lower the speed limit to 55 (saves fuel), turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater, fix the leaks in gas pipelines, and maybe even give some of those energy subsidies to renewable energy projects. In 2011 DBL Investors, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund specializing in renewable energy, published a report showing how early subsidization of energy sources in the US helped secure their respective dominant places in the energy marketplace. Nuclear subsidies accounted for more than one percent of the federal budget in their first 15 years, oil and gas subsidies made up one-half of one percent of the total federal budget in their first 15 years.

But subsidies for renewables? They’ve constituted only about one-tenth of a percent. That’s a frackin’ big handicap to overcome, by any standard.


  1. Thanks for this, Sue.

    I couldn't agree with you more. The real innovation comes from taking a new and different perspective on what our problems are.... then, we have every chance of finding the right solutions.

  2. Why do we resist looking at the big picture and as you point out ways we can collectively and creatively use a variety of resources we already have to address our energy needs (rather than adding to perhaps the mother of all pressing problems--global warming). Thanks for your article. It makes so much sense!

  3. I'm not sure about smaller wind turbines as you (and may others) suggest. I do realize that the large industrial arrays have significant impacts: flicker and noise being the two most cited. And of course there is the road damage that must be repaired. Smaller turbines don't get nearly as much wind as a turbine whose hub is 300' up in the air. The return on investment per megawatt may be much lower. For large industrial arrays, one engineering problem is how to maximize the energy that can be taken from the wind fields, as each turbine affects the wind field, which in teurn affects other turbines. Critics of wind power point to all the energy it takes to construct, transport and install these arrays of massive turbines. I am not aware of a thorough energy return on investment (EROI) study comparing large industrial arrays to smaller scattered projects of the types you mention. I am not an expert. Maybe someone is aware?

  4. How apropos yesterdays closing comment in 30 Days of Fracking Reg comments I wrote....

    "The Government, Corporations and it's Citizens need a 'New Pair of Glasses' to realize that the Earth's last hope is Renewable Energy if we are to stop global warming and reduce the environmental destruction caused by fossil fuel extraction."
    The subsidies need to be re-proportioned to renewables and I think the oil industry would reconsider some of it's investments.

  5. I agree, more saving and also exploring renewable energy is the way to go. Natural Gas can stay in the ground where it belings and we don't have to deal with it. The more we do by daylight the better and hopefully we can learn that renewable energy is the way to go. There is no reason to exploit fossil fuels and people in the government have to lear that. Those who explore wind, solar tidal and other kinds like theermal which comes from the earth itself are the ones we want to work with.