Friday, February 26, 2021

Clean Air and New Jobs: A Breath of Fresh Air

One of the more contentious challenges in the ongoing effort to move to a cleaner mix of fuels to run our modern world has been addressing concerns about the jobs that are lost, and the people who are affected, as we transition from the current mix of energy sources to a more advanced mix.  


And truly, that is a serious problem.  We can look at the world and say that we made such transitions before--from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles; from burning wood to burning coal and then oil; etc.  Those transitions, too, changed the mix and location of jobs.  But most of those transitions occurred over longer periods of time than we are now envisioning, allowing people more time to adjust.

Therefore, I was very pleased to hear former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's responses to questions in her Senate hearing for the position of Secretary of the Department of Energy about the job implications of efforts to move to cleaner energy sources: 


“We can buy electric car batteries from Asia, or we can make them in America,” Granholm told senators. “We can install wind turbines from Denmark, or we can make them in America.″


One can argue that these are easy statements to make and harder measures to implement.  And they may certainly mean that some people will have to move.  But, it is also true that many of the jobs in the nuclear and renewable energy industries are good, high-paying jobs, and if measures like training and other support can be offered to those affected by closures of old facilities, then we potentially have a win-win.  In addition, if jobs are made an important part of the plan to transition to cleaner energy, then efforts can be made to locate some of the manufacturing centers for the new products needed in the very places where mining and other jobs are being lost.  


There are still many challenges ahead.  It is easy to say that we will build the factories here, but it is harder to compete against the cheap labor in some parts of the world.  It is easy to say that factories will be built in mining communities, but those decisions are not directly in the hands of the government.  And this is not a short-term issue; we will need sustained attention to the impacts on jobs.

However, if the recognition of need for job creation is made an integral element of the planning process, then a balanced approach to the energy transition can developed, one that considers the people as well as the environment.  It will not be easy, and there will not be perfect solutions, but Secretary Granholm's statements at the Senate hearing are a very encouraging sign that we will plan in a holistic way that addresses both the needs of the overall population and the needs of the individuals most affected by the changes.




Sunday, February 7, 2021

Renewable Energy and Waste

I was delighted to see a news item recently in the American Nuclear Society Nuclear Cafe reporting on an article discussing the waste generated by renewable energy systems.  Of course, I'm not delighted because there is waste from renewable energy systems!  Rather, I am delighted that the problem is beginning to be recognized.  This is a topic that I've addressed several times in past blogs, but I've always felt that the issue wasn't getting the attention that is needed, and that my voice was a lonely voice in the wilderness.  

Unfortunately, the terminology that has developed around energy sources has led to a widespread belief that renewable energy sources are "clean" because they generate no emissions when they produce energy.  Lost in the discussion is the fact that the production of energy is only one step in the lifecycle of any energy producing system.  All energy sources require materials that need to be mined and processed, and some of the materials traditionally used for solar and wind plants may be toxic.  And all power producing plants ultimately reach the ends of their lifetimes, which means that all the materials used in the construction and operation of those power plants ultimately need to be disposed of as well. 

The ANS article and my previous blog detail some of the specific wastes produced by solar and wind power plants, so I will not repeat that discussion here.  The only point I would add to the discussion in that article is one of volume.  It is often overlooked that the distributed nature of wind and solar energy means that the systems used to extract that energy for human use have to be large and have to use a lot of materials.  Getting our energy supply from the wind and the sun requires thousands and thousands of wind turbines and solar panels.  Therefore, the issue is that, not only are there hazardous wastes created when we build wind and solar power plants, the volume of that waste is very large.  By contrast, the amount of waste generated by a nuclear power plant is much smaller.  And both radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants and hazardous wastes from other power sources may need to be sequestered for long periods of time. 

The important point is to recognize that no energy source is completely "clean."  Every source of energy generates some form of waste somewhere in the lifecycle of the system.  It is also true that we can expect to find solutions for dealing with most of these wastes.  Some of these solutions are in early stages of development, and we may need a lot more work to assure that they will be effective.  And all of them will add to the costs of energy production.  And, yes, all of them are likely to generate needs for places to dispose of toxic materials sometime in the future.  The point is that these aspects of our energy supply need to be better recognized by everyone involved--the technical community developing these systems, the energy companies seeking to build them, the communities wishing to host them, and the general public.

Hopefully, this article will start a broader dialogue on this important issue.