by Don Duggan-Haas

This post is the third in a series that addresses the 2014 Draft New York State Energy Plan and some public reactions to that plan. As mentioned in the last post, this commentary relates to New York State and its energy planning most directly, but the nature of what is happening here related to energy is instructive for both other areas of the country and for other controversial topics.

The laser-like focus on stopping fracking in New York State is admirable. I strongly believe that the activist community, both in New York and around the country, have led to stronger regulations and improved safety and environmental practices, but aspects of the work are troubling. I have concerns about unintended consequences. Advocating against one particular thing often makes you de facto for something else. If you’ve not thought carefully about what that something else is, success in advocacy may not bring positive change. Germany is, unfortunately, providing a strong example of this. The decision to phase out nuclear power has led Germany to burn more strip-mined brown coal in 2013 than they have in decades. See a recent New York Times story on that here.

Finding a cheap and easy source of energy, using up the easy to get stores of fuel and pursuing the remaining reserves through increasingly environmentally damaging and expensive means has happened again and again throughout our history as this cartoon from 1861 shows:

Grand_Ball_Given_by_Whales_(Vanity_Fair,_1861)

While attention is given to transitioning to renewable sources, planning for effective transitions requires knowing where you’re starting. I’d like to help people better understand the system they are trying to change to reduce the likelihood of harmful unintended consequences.

While many speakers at the meeting expressed the need to transition to renewables immediately, the laws of physics make that impossible (unless immediately means many years). Many cited the study led by Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson which acknowledges this reality, though some of the speakers made it sound as if 100% renewable energy could somehow happen tomorrow. Energy production and use requires a lot of infrastructure – we have one kind and need another. We can’t make that new infrastructure instantly and we can’t do it without using the existing energy system. Making solar panels and windmills requires energy, and to replace our current energy infrastructure, it would take lots of energy – more than can be provided from renewable sources right now.

Replacing the current energy system with one that is 100% renewable would also require lots of space. For example, if we wanted to keep UB’s 750 kilowatt quarter-of-a-mile-long Solar Strand the same width and extend it so that it was long enough to match the generating capacity of Ontario’s 6.3 gigawatt Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, we’d need to extend the Solar Strand from Buffalo to Phoenix, Arizona! I think it makes more sense to put solar on rooftops than to use bare ground, so think about how many rooftops that would require, and think about how much energy would be required to make all of those solar panels! That’s for a single (admittedly very large) power plant!

None of the above is intended to imply that the draft can’t be substantially improved – it can. But the gist of the initiatives are about transitioning away from fossil fuels and to reduce energy demand, and it seems to me that most of the commentators failed to address that at all.

Some very brief feedback on the Plan itself

The Plan does need to include a brief summary of its goals and initiatives in the first few pages, perhaps in the form of an executive summary. That should be followed by a brief overview of where we’re starting from – that is; it needs to educate readers about our current energy system, and important changes in that system in recent years.

All of the problems discussed above can be addressed in a range of ways, but there’s one strategy that addresses them all – use less energy. And this idea is, thankfully, addressed directly and frequently in the Draft 2014 New York State Energy Plan. Unfortunately, this was only mentioned by a minority of the speakers at the February meeting.

Of course, the Plan itself warrants much more feedback than I’ve provided in these closing brief paragraphs. I have spent much more time discussing the perception of the Plan than I have discussing the plan itself, because perception really matters. I hope readers of this series of posts will comment on the Draft New York Energy Plan before April 30, 2014.

I further hope that they will take a careful look at the Plan before they do so. That doesn’t require reading all of its many hundreds of pages, but it does require looking closely at the content you know and care the most about. Take advantage of the electronic presentation and search for terms that you think are most important to address, and read those sections carefully. Scan through to get a feeling for completeness, and for balance. Take notes as you go and then craft it into feedback that addresses both what you think is appropriately addressed in the Plan and, being as specific as possible, address its shortcomings and offer specific suggestions on how to improve it.

Our energy system matters a great deal for almost everything we do. I’m delighted by the interest that changes to that system brings to it. Hydrofracking is catalyzing learning and teaching about the energy system, and political action too. Let’s work to make all of our roles in that as beneficial as possible.

– Don Duggan-Haas is Director of Teacher Programs at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca. Along with colleagues Robert Ross and Warren Allmon, he authored The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale.