Last month, Margaret Wente, the Globe & Mail’s provocative right-leaning columnist, wrote a column entitled “Ontario’s green dream was just a fantasy.” In her article, Wente claimed that Ontario, in investing billions of dollars in green energy infrastructure, had wasted public funds and that this was now coming to a head. True enough, Ontario has not had a lot of success bringing power bills down by adding renewables to the grid. However, this is not the point of early investment in renewable energy: as we are starting to see, investment in renewables is about creating a climate for improvement of these technologies so that they can truly become a reliable part of our energy portfolio.
Before I get into it, let me first dispel my greatest pet peeve about wind power: Wente asserted that wind energy is “chewing up birds.” The estimated annual number of birds killed by turbines: about 440,000 in the US. However, in one study, predation was found to be responsible for 79% of deaths among birds, with 47% of those deaths due to cats. If turbines are kept out of migratory paths, the number of bird deaths can be reduced further.
OK, back on topic. The point of bringing up Wente’s article is that it demonstrates the common conservative perception of public investiture in alternative energy: it doesn’t make money, therefore it is a waste of time. The recent breakthrough in solar technology due to US government grants – using specific salts to allow solar energy generation even after the sun goes down – is a perfect example of just one of the ways in which this is a shortsighted, cheap way of thinking. Without significant government spending to encourage this (at first) money-losing venture, the idea would never have gotten off the ground.
Concentrated solar power is one example of alternatives that are just starting to break out. Floating and flying wind turbines are another exciting tool to add to our portfolio, as are in-stream tidal plants (one alternatives field in which Canada can actually be a world leader), wave power plants, and especially geothermal plants, both for residential heating and industrial electricity generation.
The reason we have public funds to devote to research is that it frees up scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to dream just a little bit more than they would be able to under pressure from investors. Some technologies can take years, but if they show promise, why shouldn’t we be investing in them?
Wente’s claim that we should just relax, because fracking will provide us with all the energy we need for the next 100 years is possibly false, and definitely irresponsible. First, the side effects on the environment, (interestingly enough, it’s even been proven by the USGS to cause earthquakes), have yet to be measured in a meaningful way. Maybe fracking doesn’t leave you with tapwater that can be lit on fire, or maybe it does – but a large study has yet to be done on the potential for groundwater contamination due to fracking. Furthermore, methane (natural gas, what the frackers are after) is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and there is evidence that it escapes during extraction and transport of the gas, meaning that although CO2 emissions are much lower for natural gas than for coal, it’s possible that the methane actually makes up the difference.
Finally, 100 years, what Wente estimates to be the amount of gas being made available to us, is not indefinite. 100 years is 100 years. It’s two human generations. So if we want our great-grandkids to praise our foresight, counting on 100 more years in which we can consume the fossil fuels that remain to us and warm the planet beyond repair might not be the best use of our money, and the research and development of alternatives, even temporarily expensive ones, starts to seem a bit more economical.