If You Can Read This

If you can read this post, you probably dwell someplace with electric power. Between ice storms, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and other calamities, most of us in the United States tend to take electricity for granted. How fortunate we are.

As I learned more about the Great Lie that climate science is “settled,” it behooved me to study energy more than I had by being an avid consumer of news for my entire life. What have I learned? 

1. Electric grids are subtle, complex creations, among the most outstanding accomplishments of modern engineering. They are also tenuous. If obtaining meaningful quantities of American electric needs from wind and solar was anything like straightforward, it would have been done by now. 

2. One cannot bring, today, 20 percent of operating capacity online via wind or solar or a combination thereof, because neither is dependable. For every gigawatt of capacity you derive from alternative sources you need a redundant gigawatt from conventional sources or you will no longer have a system that can be kept running smoothly at all

A shrine honoring electric light: Sanborn Library at Dartmouth College.

A shrine honoring electric light: Sanborn Library at Dartmouth College.

times. The redundancy is one of the reasons that alternative sources will be far more expensive than conventional ones for the foreseeable future. In California, where wind has been exploited more than in most U.S. states, the electricity produced by the windmills is only used when the system is at overload. Why? Because the wind power costs more. 

3. People who favor wind and solar inevitably start talking about batteries, but batteries are notoriously toxic! Solving one environmental ill (and by that I mean particulate and chemical pollution) with another is no solution at all. I predict that the switchover to electric vehicles and hybrids leads to unintended consequences of major dimensions.

4. Many of the next-generation photovoltaic cells themselves are cadmium-based, with cadmium presenting a wide variety of health problems (from bone loss to cancer). But apart from that, the cells are good for the environment, right? Not exactly. Nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, used in the production of some flat-screen TVs and, you guessed it, photovoltaic solar panels, is 17,000 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and its atmospheric levels are rising quickly. As regular readers here know, I do not accept the dogma about CO2’s risks to our planet’s health, given that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has always followed temperature. However, a gas that is 17,000 times more powerful than CO2 is not one that I would blithely introduce in mass quantities into the eco-system with a “wait-and-see” attitude. 

As I say frequently, mercury pollution from coal is not a good thing. Environmental destruction from strip mining is not a good thing. The wanton construction of roads through rainforests does not make my day.  

But I’ll tell you what does make my day: Electricity. It is an ongoing modern miracle. Over time, engineers will find a way to deliver electric power far more cleanly to Western consumers, I have no doubt.

In the short term, though, constructing an exchange, namely carbon trading, that prevents the Third World from having its own electric power so that we can keep enjoying ours is not very nice. It’s a West-first system of resource allocation that used to have a one-word name: colonialism.

About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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5 Responses to If You Can Read This

  1. Nicole says:

    The same folks that think Europe really has it goin’ on seem to hate nuclear power, something widely adopted in Europe.

    If we want to produce electricity without coal and natural gas, we need to seriously consider nuclear power. When’s that going to happen?

    Oh, don’t worry. I won’t hold my breath!

    • Harold Ambler says:

      I was shocked while riding trains in Europe during my first trip there by the number of nuclear towers I saw. They would pop up out of pristine countryside, and I would recoil, having been frightened by Three Mile Island and some anti-nuke scaremongering over the years.

      Modern reactors (pebble bed reactors among them) are far safer than Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. I still don’t get a warm fuzzy from nuclear power, but I think it is an important means of bridging us to better power sources half a century from now.

      As for the energy solutions of the future, I suspect that they literally have not been imagined yet. Oh, sure, cold fusion may seem to have been an easy way to go once someone cracks that nut (I doubt it). But as with the internal combustion engine, fission, and the Internet, change takes a long time to happen, but when it happens it happens fast.

  2. Adam Gallon says:

    Interesting how the evils of Mercury in coal are trumpeted by the enviromentalists and its use in barometers has been banned under EU regulations. Energy saving light bulbs are now mandatory in new-build houses. Guess what thet contain?
    Yep, Mercury!
    Fear not the mighty atom, Mr Ambler. Check how many people TMI killed.
    Chernobyl killed hundreds, a lesson not to both use such ancient technology and not to turn off the safety features whilst doing high-risk experiments.
    Nuclear energy is still highly contraversial here too, France used a fair amount, supplimented by hydro-electric power. Their electricity bills have risen but a little over the past few years.
    We happy British have had governments who either daredn’t risk the wrath of the Greens & the Left (pretty synonymous) by openly debating nuclear power, scatter a few of these damned windmills around the countryside, commit to changing 20% of our power to “renewables” (Not nuclear, that doesn’t account apparently) when the technology to do so isn’t practicable and hope that Putin doesn’t turn off the gas taps.
    The carbon trading is a fiasco, many Indian companies will rake in a fortune for replacing outdated plant with new, that they would be replacing anyway and selling their units (or whatever this idiocy is measured in) to us in the West.
    They’ll then sell the stuff they’ve made to us, as our industries continue to shut down due to enviromental regulations putting costs up.

    • Harold Ambler says:

      Well, Chernobyl was a bigger disaster than you let on, perhaps. The fallout has been measured in glaciers around the globe; Pripyat, Belarus, a city of 50,000 had to be abandoned; thyroid cancer rates increased precipitously in the region; and, yes, hundreds were killed locally at the time. Below is a quote from

      Assessment of Radiological
      and Health Impacts
      2002 Update of
      Chernobyl: Ten Years On
      “This had serious radiological, health and socio-economic consequences
      for the populations of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, which still suffer from these
      consequences. Although the radiological impact of the accident in other
      countries was generally very low, and even insignificant outside Europe, this
      event had, however, the effect of enhancing public apprehension all over the
      world on the risks associated with the use of nuclear energy.”

      And yet, and yet, I agree with you that nuclear power can be exploited far more safely than widely believed, and that it is at present necessary, and important, to do so.

  3. RC says:

    Chernobyl did not have a containment building. This design is not U.S. standard design. Three Mile Island’s main problem was because the plant operators did not recognize the problem. They had inadequate training. No one died because of Three Mile Island. Our Nuke plants have containment buildings.

    Nuclear power is fine. Its expensive because of all of the needed safety protocols and design to make sure that there is no leakage of radioactive material.

    But if you want a plug in hybrid future w/o mountains of coal dust, then nuclear is the only thing that can be scaled up to meet the country’s enormous power needs.

    May I suggest some links:




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