As a global society, we currently stand on a precipice; the potential catastrophe that awaits us cannot be downplayed in any way. Brought about by fossil fuel greed, mass shortsightedness and a complete and frankly terrifyingly impressive ability to ignore all signs of danger and wrongdoing for decades past, humanity has ravaged the planet to a point where civilisation is at the fork in the road.
Unless we make a change, a global change, we begin the short walk down one road towards an extinction level event, bigger than any nature has wrought upon life before us, that will be impossible to turn back from. Forgive my foreboding and perhaps depressing approach, but I for one see only one route out of this. For centuries before now, humanity has prided itself on its ability to innovate and outsmart our way out of danger, and never more than now is it crucial we do this once again.
It’s with these thoughts ringing heavily in my ears, that I turn to what I feel are some of the most frustrating and dismissive problems large majorities of society have with certain renewable technologies, as well as some of those dirtier fossil fuels such as natural gas, which despite being part of the problem, are rapidly taking precedence as the answer to our carbon woes, a fantastic alternative to that old demon oil and coal.
Unfortunately I do not foster the same feelings towards natural gas, and also do not tend to follow suit in regards to issues with solar panels, wind farms or nuclear plants, all of which are the truly awe-inspiring innovations with which we can slow, stop and eventually reverse the once irreversible damage we have wrought upon this beautiful planet. As you will hopefully see in the following summaries, many of the so-called ‘negatives’ with each of these technologies, is in my eyes, and I’m sure the eyes of many others, both ridiculous and detrimental to society as a whole, a statement I do not wish to undervalue in this post.
Let’s get straight to the major players, solar and wind. The one complaint about these two absolutely wonderful technologies is one that angers me greatly - “they’re too ugly, don’t go putting them on my roof/in my garden/anywhere within a 50 miles radius or my house”. Apologies if you’re someone who shares these feelings, but I simply cannot agree with such a weak and destructive view when you consider the grand scheme. As job creators, solar and wind each produce at least 6x the number of jobs that coal and oil do, with a much larger percentage in long term maintenance, a highly secure career. Not only this, but subsidies, feed-in-tariffs and government funding has aided these industries in literally exploding in value and popularity, and lest not forget, solar and wind are entirely clean, completely renewable and have the potential to provide huge proportions of the world’s energy.
They are in effect, our best hopes of greening our society, so when I hear people condemn them on the grounds of attractiveness, I despair. Sooner or later, and let’s face it, it’s sooner, we will have to realise that looks should not get in the way of such fantastic technology. It may be expensive in some ways, confusing to others, and as yet an immature industry, but it is certainly not a fashion item.
We also have some other options on the table. Biomass, tidal and wave are all sources which have their own bonuses to society, but are much more on the experimental and non-commercial levels compared to solar and wind. Tidal and wave both face similar opposition to their more established cousins, in that looks and potential risks to the environment seem to far outweighs their global benefits, for example their renewable characteristics. It’s true that we should always consider the possible damage to habitats and the environment, but when it’s the sole reason for such protestations against projects like the Severn River dam, which could produce as much as 10% of the UK’s needs, I feel it goes too far.
Biomass has achieved a poor reputation due to the highly detrimental effects it can have, and I reiterate can, on food crops and security, whereby plants grown for the sole purpose of biofuels can take space and energy away from food crops, raising prices and risking secure flows of wheat, rice, beans etc. Although this is a huge issue with the process, technology exists out there which can convert plant waste such as wood cuttings, bark or dead leaves into pure energy in the form of fuel, or to be processed directly into the grid. This is currently happening in Japan, where plants are using waste accrued since the Tohoku earthquake as energy, an absolutely genius idea by an undoubtedly innovative nation. If only more of this was adopted around the world, we could be generating energy from our own waste, of which we are in no short supply, whilst greening the economy and cleaning up our act. Neat eh?
One energy source which I have already been a follower and fan of is the unfortunately ill-fated nuclear fission reactor. Fukushima may very well be the final nail in the atom-splitting coffin, and I feel it would be a huge shame to see it swept under the carpet purely because of some mishaps in its history. Look at this way. Nuclear has the potential, if regulation, safety and red tape is cleared up and the technology updated (entirely plausible considering there are plenty of options out there), to provide a huge amount of energy as an intermediary between fossil fuels and renewables. In its time, 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl have been the accidents which drew attention, and were undeniably tragic and damaging. Fukushima however was a combination of freak natural events and poor human planning, of which we know we can fix, and as yet, no-one has died and radiation illnesses have not been detected.
As it stands, current generation reactors are horrendously expensive, have ridiculous planning and build times and the government aid required all but renders them pointless. However, with small modular reactors, pebble-based plants and next generation models, the problems of weapons proliferation, cost, accessibility and waste are practically solved, and yet we are no closer to employing them as we are to living on Mars.
Finally, and I’m going to be quick with this last one, we get to natural gas, which is being touted as the saviour we’ve been waiting for. It’s cheaper, cleaner, easier to obtain and much more readily available than coal and oil, and therefore it is exactly what we need to clean up our society. This is plain stupid. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It may be the lesser of two evils, but it is still very much an evil. To think it is a worthy replacement to coal and oil is like saying a pistol is preferable to a machine gun in keeping the peace; an extreme metaphor I know, but it’s how I see it. We cannot let natural gas take over as the key energy source, that’s a no-brainer.
If there’s one thing I’m trying to put across in this [rather long] post, it’s that our attitudes have to change, and fast. We cannot halt progress on renewable energy forms purely because of our fashion-centric theories of how something should look, and we cannot equally shut out nuclear based on fears fostered by over the top media coverage of what is in reality very few disasters. If you find yourself doubting nuclear’s safety and danger to life, consider how much more life has been adversely affected by the entire coal, oil and gas industries since they began; that should reassert your views, it certainly did to mine.