When the controversy over potential oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve erupted a few years ago I spent a great deal of time thinking about the interwoven challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change. Oddly, the image which settled in my mind, and which to a certain degree settled my internal debate, was from the film Escape from New York in which the character Brain has an oil derrick in his office in the New York Public Library: We will drill everywhere there is even the slightest chance of finding fossil fuel eventually to keep from freezing (or starving) in the near term, regardless of the long term consequences. I was left hoping the environmentalists would win the near term argument basically to save that particularly poor decision for a later time.
A few years ago Massachusetts was focused on expanding the share of electricity in the state which came from “renewable” sources. For most people that meant solar, wind, and possibly hydro, but, surprisingly to some, it also included a category known as “biomass”. The paradox of course is that by “renewable”, most people thought green, environmentally friendly, and clean, not actually renewable. Because biomass is basically a fancy term for burning wood it isn’t the former things perhaps, but it certainly is the latter. And therein lies the rub.
Every form of energy has its downside either environmentally, logistically, in terms of its sustainability, its technological and resource demands, or its consistency of output. Solar panels degrade and require rare earth metals, wind farms kill birds, hydro damages ecosystems, fossil fuels pollute and are nonrenewable, nuclear creates near term danger and long, long term commitments to storage and security. For good and for ill, Massachusetts has no fossil fuels, solar use is possible in our climate (see Germany), but not ideal, and most potential hydro has been harnessed. Wind power seems our best asset, but it cannot be trusted to provide peak energy during times of peak demand. In spite of that wind should be, in my estimation, the primary focus of energy production of any scale in the Bay State. Given the limitations of wind power though, back up generation of an on demand sort will need to exist for times when output and input are mismatched, and that is where biomass comes in.
At the fringes of my mind there is a concern over the potential for a disjunction in the northeast given our high level of energy demand, and our low level…read “non existent”… production of fossil fuel energy on which our system really depends. In the time between now and the time that demand in New England comes to match renewable supply I see the huge disparity between what we actually produce here from local resources and what we demand as an enormous danger to not just our economic well being, but our viability. Biomass is the only truly on demand energy we can sustain here at any reasonable level. The sun does not always shine, the wind does not always blow, water does not always flow at maximal levels (even in New England), and we do not have any native coal, oil, or natural gas. Having a limited number of facilities which can use a product we do produce locally, namely wood, designed and built to be as ecologically friendly as possible is a wise move.
Opponents of biomass don’t live in grass huts and my guess is they heat their homes in winter, and good for them. So do I. We have the energy we have. None of it comes without cost. Get into the nitty gritty on any form of energy and that becomes apparent. Think wind and solar don’t have a carbon footprint? Think again. Can they be sustained without the large eroei of the fossil energy which now underpins the system? That’s a good question. Can wind energy produce the materials wind energy depends on to exist AND provide an excess for us to light our homes and all? Maybe. I hope so. But these are actually still questions.
Eroei is the concept which underlies our modern way of life. Nothing has the eroei of fossil fuels on the scale we need to continue doing things the way we are doing them, but as long as we think we can we are going to use energy resources which have serious consequences to someone’s well being somewhere and in many cases nearly everyone’s well being everywhere.
For the time between the present, our current perception of our energy situation, and the time when we’ve adapted to energy reality, the key to survivability will be flexibility. In Massachusetts that looks like wind farms, solar arrays, taking a look at the hydro power we fail to utilize despite our ancestors having already created the infrastructure, and some wood burning generation capacity for when those three are offline or limited. If I were willing to live a pre-industrial lifestyle then I could complain about the damage it might do to my lungs and the lungs of my children, but since I’m not I need to grow up and acknowledge that the benefits of modern civilization come at a cost, a cost I can’t always externalize to people and places invisible to me.