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
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