Good vs Perfect: Can We Afford to Wait?
The clean energy movement has an unfortunate history of sacrificing the “good” in search of the “perfect” solution. Here’s an example: Kevin Costner (yes, the actor) reacted to the Exxon Valdez oil spill by investing over $24 million in a company that makes high speed centrifuge machines that can separate oil from water at the source of an oil spill. So, rather than having to skim the oil off the water or collect and transport massive mixtures of oil and water, the machines sends clean water back into the ocean on site and collect oil on the tanker. That way, the oil never reaches land, which greatly reduces the impact on wetlands, birds and sea life.
Sounds great, right? Not so fast.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wouldn’t let him sell the tools in the U.S. until they could reduce the oil to 15 parts/million. The tool wasn’t perfect, so it couldn’t be used on the thousands of smaller oil spills that have happened over the past decade. Thanks to improvements in the membrane technology, the tools can now filter oil out of the water with less than 5 parts/million. And BP just bought 32 of these machines to put into action in the Gulf.
Costner shared this story (and his frustration) at the Aspen Environment Forum this week. He also noted the sad irony that he couldn’t sell his machines because of EPA rules, while we have no idea about the environmental impacts of the oil dispersants being used by BP today. When disaster strikes, we throw out the rule book and take unhealthy risks. We sacrificed Costner’s “good” solution for the nonexistent “perfect” through regulatory red tape.
The same thing is happening with renewable power plant projects across the U.S. – from proposed solar power plants in the Mojave Desert to controversial wind farms off Cape Cod. We need renewable energy. Now.
We can’t keep burning coal to feed our growing energy demands, but we as a country don’t seem to be able to organize to rationally, safely and quickly deploy renewables. Time and resources are wasted fighting over where solar power plants or wind farms can be located and how big they can be. Delays in transmission improvement projects that could bring clean wind energy from Montana to heavy population centers like California keep happening. Yes, these power plants and transmission lines have an impact on the environment. And of course, the impact on endangered species and threatened habitats must be carefully considered. But isn’t getting solar power better than burning coal or nuclear fuel? Isn’t wind energy better than burning natural gas for us all? And don’t kid yourself; the energy is going to come from somewhere. Even the most aggressive energy efficiency programs won’t completely eliminate the need for additional energy generation. We have to make some tough decisions and we’re running out of time waiting for some mythical, perfect solution.
So what can we do about it?
• First, we can deploy five-20MW solar farms on large commercial rooftops and unused existing utility properties (like substations) where significantly less additional environmental impact will be felt. The California Public Utilities Commission identified sites where 2.2GW of solar could be rapidly deployed immediately.
• Second, we’ve got to come together as an environmental and renewable energy community to identify places where these solar and wind farms will have the least impact on local wildlife and habitants. It’s called compromise and we need to begin practicing it right away.
• Finally, we need to recognize that our energy generation mix is in crisis. We need to act as if the house is on fire and drive solutions with a sense of urgency rather than dallying through endless regulatory gridlock. We need to create an entirely new regulatory regime for deploying renewables now.
Renewable energy power plants aren’t the perfect solution, but they are a good one.