Earth Day environmentalists defend benefits of renewables

Environmentalists have denounced as "silly propaganda" claims made that renewable energy is no more natural, abundant or cheap than fossil fuels such as coal.

The claims were made by the Greening Earth Society (GES), a group created by the Western Fuels Association to promote the environmental ‘benefits’ of fossil fuels (see related story).

The GES report, Renewable Energy and the Laws of Nature, argues that fossil fuels are just as natural and abundant, require less intensive land-use and are no more inherently costly than renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

“This piece of silly propaganda is typical of the Greening Earth Society – a front group almost wholly paid for by American coal producers. The article sets up a series of straw men, and it then pretends to accomplish something by attacking them,” Denis Hayes, chairman of the Earth Day Network, and President and CEO of The Bullitt Foundation, a NGO that aims to protect the environment of the Pacific Northwest.

“Of course coal, oil, and natural gas are ‘natural,'” Hayes told edie. “Did someone claim they were supernatural?” Hayes also refutes the the claim made by the report’s author, Mark P. Mills, that the kilowatt-hour is “an unnatural primary natural resource.” “I have no idea where Mr. Mills gets the idea that there is something ‘unnatural’ about a kilowatt-hour. Electricity is the product of perfectly predictable physical processes, and it is as ‘natural’ as a hemp t-shirt.”

Hayes continues: “The real issue is that some forms of energy will change the planet’s climate, damage human lungs, devastate a landscape, or produce bomb-grade nuclear materials. Other energy sources can be ‘naturally’ absorbed within the ongoing geophysical processes of the earth (the carbon cycle.) On a planet on which six billion people are seeking ever higher degrees of affluence, there are huge advantages to using energy sources that don’t overwhelm the capacity of the planet to assimilate them.”

Hayes goes on to attack the scarcity versus abundance argument. “I don’t know any ‘environmentalist’ who has warned that we are on the verge of running out of coal,” says Hayes. “The issue, rather, is that virtually all climate scientists who are not bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry agree that burning all the world’s coal would bring on catastrophic climate change. Swiftly releasing the seabed’s abundant methane hydrates (by warming the water) is an even more terrifying prospect.

“Mr. Mills is correct that such fuels are abundant. His error is that they are not ‘available’ for use as a fuel. Sunlight, too, is abundant. The difference is not in its size but its availability. The sun will shine (and the wind will blow) whether we tap it for energy or not, whereas the carbon in coal will remain harmlessly sequestered unless we burn it.”

Hayes condemns Mill’s contention that renewable energy, being more dilute, will require more land than ‘concentrated’ fossil fuels as “idiotic.” “[Mills] neglects the obvious fact that the land requirements for renewable energy need not be exclusive,” says Hayes. “We can cover the roofs and southern walls of our homes, factories, shopping centres and schools with solar cells without losing one square inch of useful land. Farmers can put wind turbines in their fields without diminishing their production of corn or soybeans. However, the “exclusion zone” around a nuclear power plant is the zone in which all other activities are prohibited for safety reasons. It must be dedicated to the power plant. And although desultory attempts have been made to reclaim a few coal stripmines, they remain bleak, unproductive affairs. Over any 100 year period, the land that must be dedicated to power a society using sunlight will be vastly less than the land that will be ruined by powering it with conventional fuels.”

Hayes concedes that “there is something close to a valid argument” in Mills’ final point – that putting energy resources to use entails both an energy and economic cost. But, says Hayes, “the valid argument would have been that, although sunlight is free, money must be spent to harness it to human purposes. Instead, Mills makes the genuinely weird assertion that oil is as free as sunshine.”

Hayes advises Mills to test his thesis by going into an oil field and “attempting to cart off a tanker load of this ‘free’ resource.” “He’d better have an army behind him,” says Hayes.

“Important issues must be addressed regarding the transition from nineteeth century carbon-based fuels to the super-efficient use of renewable resources,” Hayes concludes. “Earth Day Network looks forward to a spirited, intellectually honest debate with spirited, intellectually honest adversaries – as soon as we find some.”

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