It is a surprisingly strong and sad thing that someone did along the way to convince many of us that “cynic” and “realist” meant the same thing.
It’s this uncomfortable niggling belief that keeps many people who are in fact, opposed to a dangerous, unhealthy, job-killing practice like fracking or worried sick about the Keystone XL pipeline sending tar sands oil into the atmosphere, from really stepping out to fight it. They believe in the backs of their heads that there’s nothing for it. We won’t really be able to meet our energy needs any other way, and we can’t really change make a massive shift to reduce our energy needs either. The “realists” have convinced them.
It’s not true.
And if all those people were convinced that there was another practical way, and then they had turned out this past Monday to the Crossroads anti-fracking demonstration here in Albany, what was already an impressive crowd of thousands (who represented the opinions of the majority of the state) would have been so massive as to be un ignorable.
So, going on the theory that we are going to have to turn out in numbers again before this fight is over, I urge everyone to read the study from Stanford and Cornell engineers—funded by no industry, activist, or government groups—that outlines in detail how New York state could be 100 percent run on “wind, water, and solar” (WWS) by 2030.
I found the study notable for several reasons. First, it is specific and concrete—how many turbines of what kind where, how many solar rooftop systems, use of solid biomass (i.e. wood) for transition. It says why what it would do would save energy, and it takes into account, extraction effects, air pollution and land use effects, not just point-of-burning carbon footprint.
Second, it takes the time to do a detailed, well cited take down of the idea that natural gas is actually a short-term transition fuel that’s better than oil or coal with regards to climate change. Short answer: because so much methane is released during extraction and handling, and methane is so much more of a potent greenhouse gas than carbon, it’s definitely no better, and might be worse. It also follows up with a take down of biodiesel, which is fascinating also. It does both to explain why they are not part of their plan.
And then of course, there are the economics. If this isn’t a classic worthwhile long-term investment, I don’t know what is: Invest in the infrastructure up front, which creates a ton of jobs right now while jobs are desperately needed. Then you have created energy price stability (fuel is free, costs of maintaining infrastructure steady), which is good for attracting businesses (low, predictable costs!) and residents. And you have created a larger job base for your state, because not only are all the jobs related to your energy creation in-state, but every single kind of renewable energy creates more jobs per GWh of electrical energy produced than gas, coal, or nuclear. Wouldn’t you rather more of your utility bill went to job creation and less to fossil fuel executive’s obscene profits? I sure would.
And of course there’s the safety and health benefits of a WWS system—protecting drinking water and farmland, and reducing air pollution deaths and related illnesses. The study authors suggest that just due to reduced air pollution, their plan would save New York state $33 billion/year, or 3 percent of its GDP.
This is one of those moments where I’m waiting for all the fiscal conservatives and chambers of commerce concerned with long-term costs, deficits, and business location appeal to come jumping up and down with excitement at the opportunities this lays out—from saved government costs to chances for a ton of small businesses in conservation and PV systems installation. (It’ll happen, but we can’t wait for them to go first, I’m afraid.)
Want a practical next step in making this a reality? The Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers (yup—jobs and environment, together as they should be) have a suggestion: Something that has worked to jumpstart the renewables sector in many places around the world, including, famously, Germany, is something called a “feed-in tariff” or FIT—essentially a long-term contract with a fixed price for energy generated that encourages everyone to develop and sell energy to utilities, even in small amounts. See bit.ly/nyfeedin for more information.
We can do this. No excuses. As the George Bernard Shaw quote goes, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on June 20, 2013.)