Monday, May 3, 2010

Offshore Wind Is Just So Darn Cool

It really breaks my heart to wake up every morning to more doom and gloom about that oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. 

I've never been big on offshore oil, but then again, like the still-have-to-drive-my-car-to-work hypocrite that I am, I've never been big on oil consumption.

Anyway, I don't think anybody could have predicted this.  The trouble is, from an NPR interview I heard this morning with a BP official, it sounds like the kind of equipment failue that happened just wasn't even figured into the cost-benefit-analysis equation, because we thought we knew the safety of the technology.  It is perplexing that super-redundant failsafe technology somehow still managed to fail, and discouraging but understandable that nobody got much practice in fixing Stuff That Really Should Not Break to Begin With.

Should we figure unprecidented, remotely-possible and bizzare failure into our collective okay-ness or not with the risks of offshore drilling?  I am fine going rock climbing with my laboratory-tested, ever-redundantly-set-up safety equipment.  Most all of us--especially those of us who think offshore drilling is at least better than buying it from terrorists--are willing to stuff ourselves in metal boxes that travel at high speeds near other metal boxes multiple times a day, even knowing the risk of death is actually quite substantial.

Although if you ask a Louisiana fisherman, and he'd probably tell you that no risk to something You Can't Fix Once You Broke It is acceptable.  In the case of large-scale, vital systems likes oceans, estuaries, wetlands and the like, I am inclined to agree.  Messing with stuff you depend on but can't fix has never been a particularly wise course of action, and I think as a society we know this.  It's just that finding the balance:  how great is the actual risk, how great is the potential gain, is where a practical and phisophical question enters the realm of politics.

So here's where I want to plug Offshore Wind.  It's just so darn neat.  The wind blows quite a bit on the ocean, so you don't have to listen to that "renewable aint reliable" guff the critics give you about land-based forms of the technology.   Large-scale offshore wind farms are already operational in other parts of the world:  Denmark has over 300 MW of wind in use, and Sweeden and the Netherlands have been running offshore wind sites since the 1990s.  That doesn't sound like un-tested technology to me.  Yet in the United States, we have a plethora of proposed projects--including the newly approved Cape Wind project--that have yet to be brought to life.  The current climate bill really could change this, so now is a great time to think about how cool it is.

Windmills may be considered ugly, but I fail to see how they are any uglier than an oil rig, or the smokestacks of a coal-fired power plant, for that matter.  I suppose the absolute ugliness of windmills will always be a matter of taste, but I don't see how the relative ugliness, when compared to the alternative, can ever be considered particularly great.

Windmills disrupt, kill wildlife.  Obviously, so does an oil spill.  But even in the more normal, spill-free reality of most oil drilling, I want to point out that climate change disrupts and kills wildlife.  Photochemical smog is neither a friend of the animals.  I've heard some, not necesarily authoritative sources, say that offshore wind is actually better about wildlife death than land-based wind.  Just miss the migratory paths of birds, you know?

It seems to me such an obvious win-win idea, such a no-brainer to produce energy with a lessened environmental impact, stimulte economic growth in a new industry, and, you know, use our brains to evaluate risk, gain, and consequence, and select from all options the most satisfying solution to the various concerns involved.

There is an obvious caveat here, which is that oil-drilling and wind-milling are feeding two separate energy streams.  Electricity powers light bulbs (and industry, and the Information Technology we depend on, and your plug-in hybrid), while petroleum powers cars, among other things.  We depend* on plastic bottles and plastic bags, manufactured from petroleum resin, propane and jet fuel and many thousands of household and industrial chemicals.  Even if our electric needs were met cleanly, do we drill those other things out of our oceans, or buy them from people who like to blow other people up?  Furthermore, should our demand fuel an oil spill on somebody else's beach, or are we man enough to take on the consequences of our material demands ourselves?  (Although accepting the consequences of one's actions, might actually be more of a woman thing).

*hardship often shows us that the definition of "depend" is quite relative.

I don't have an answer to that, not 100%.   Chemical energy and electrical energy can certainly be cross-converted (with some loss): in fact, that is what a car engine, battery, and alternator together accomplish.  I have often thought that we could make our energy quagmire simpler and more attackable if we trended our technology toward one method of energization, instead of two.  Of course a practical way to accomplish that involves some government determination of Things Market, and some would call that a slippery slope toward tyrannical socialism.  I don't agree with that classification, but I can see their point.

But why not offshore wind, too?  Why not have the wind component, together with the oil? Anyone who thinks the government is not already deeply involved in utility regulation lives in something of a dream-world.  Currently, federal approvement is required to begin an offshore operation.  If people are going to see this gulf oil slick as a reason to put a moratorium on drilling, a reason to be very careful with drilling, or whatever--can't we take this moment of pause to really consider the benefits of renewable technology? 

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