CEnv Blog | Eye of the Beholder - By Andrew Clark CEnv MIEMA
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that” said Thomas Edison, in 1931.
Nearly 90 years on, we’ve made huge progress in global deployment of renewable energy, including solar. However oil and coal still account for around 62% of primary energy consumption, with renewables coming in just shy of 10%. Still a bit of work to do then Mr. Edison.
From a logical point of view it’s hard to deny the case for using renewables instead of their finite fossil friends. Why build dependence on a fuel that will run out?
But at what environmental expense do renewables come? Sure they reduce direct greenhouse gas emissions, and don’t deplete finite resources, except in one sense they do. They have to be put somewhere.
“People must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure” said Sir David Attenborough, broadcaster and national treasure most recently known for the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet 2’ which seemed to inspire the nation in 2017.
It’s a good point! Due to the nature of renewables however, it’s often by being placed in our most ‘beautiful’ and ‘wonderful’ spaces, as Attenborough puts it, they can have maximum output.
The rolling hillside exposed to high winds that turbines can harness, or the open fields which provide a perfect expanse for solar panels to harvest the sun’s rays. Now that is a tricky one from an environmental point of view. Is renewable energy or conservation more important?
On a recent trip to Iceland, I pondered this conundrum while stood in front of Gullfoss, one of the Country’s most amazing waterfalls. Gullfoss has almost been used for hydro power in the past.
I’d like to think even the most committed renewables advocate would have some regret at the thought of such plans going ahead, given the detriment it would have to such an awe inspiring natural feature.
But Iceland is truly unique as the only country which sources 100% of its electricity and heat from renewables already, only using fossil fuel as back-up.
It wasn’t just its abundant resources in relation to its small population that motivated this transition. For Iceland the risks, given its remoteness, of energy insecurity and exposure to price volatility were too high. Also the cost of creating a national energy grid didn’t make sense. Decentralised energy independence does makes sense, and is practically possible.
So what’s the lesson, this got me thinking…
There is an imperative to preserve our natural world, and we should do as little damage to it as possible while providing energy. But my gut says the greater need is to get off the fossil addiction.
If we don’t, that’s where way more damage to the natural world will accumulate down the line.
To echo Tomas Edison, I hope we tackle this way before fossil fuels run out. That is the lesson from Iceland, sometimes we need to view the risk as a bigger driver to act, rather than the opportunity. The longer we consider it an optional opportunity, the less choice we have.
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