Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sustaining Words

"Green" as a term for "environmentally-friendly" is stupid.  Green is a color.  It's use to describe a philosophical/political/methodological concept stems, I suppose, from the fact that vegetation outside of winter and fall is often green, and vegetation is something that abounds especially in places where humans are not giving it undue suppression, is thus associated with preserving such places as well as the whole planet.  Even though the whole planet is much more blue.

Tongue no longer in cheek, I don't like "green" as a concept other than a nice color because it is imprecise and very quickly made nonsensical.  I'm nonetheless saddled with using it, since it is recognized as a marketing tool by the company I work for and is front-and-center in the descriptions of my department and my job title, and even the industry in which I work. 

"Sustainable" and "Sustainability" is the more sophisticated term, embodying a more clear view of what the philosophy actually means,  which is to consider how well said activity/object/policy can be carried out into the long-term with regard to the environment, recognizing that we care about the environment because of how interrelated it is to pretty much everything if you look at it hard enough and how much we depend on having a functioning environment, not only because in some places said environment is pretty and "pristine" (hah!)   We can and do talk about "sustainability" as not meaning the environment:  most frequently economic sustainability, but no-sleep college kid running off of ten cups of coffee also comes to mind.  The idea is the same:  short-term actions without regard to long-term consequences has the real potential to come back to bite you later.

"Sustainability" is recognized and understood by most people associated with environmentalism, yet may not obviously be so to those who are not.  And I say that also makes it a preferable term, because the goal of sustainability is not to be a side pursuit for hippies, but to describe how society actually is.  Able to keep going. With positive delta well being, even, not something degrading over time from overuse and lack of planning.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Further Reasons to Be Hesitant About Nuclear Power

As you can tell, I am quite ambivalent about nuclear power.  On the one hand, I think more widespread use of nuclear energy is better than continuing to burn coal. On the other hand, I think nuclear is a foolish stopgap measure--it has it's own problems and is not where humanity needs to end our quest for the energy alternative to carbon. 

After last night's post, I started thinking even more, and I want to articulate several against nuclear power that I cannot handily ignore.  While the accusations of just being misinformed about the risk and thus afraid and alarmist are often leveled against nuclear power opponents, I don't find that to be true about all of them.  Sure, nuclear power can be scary and that is bound to rally strong opposition, but many of the intelligent people I know who oppose it do so for reasons more sophisticated than how scary it is.  I think they have decent arguments, which I will sum up below:

1.) As I address last night, we still have not decided what to do with the waste, which is a problem on a timescale we may not be equipped to deal with.  Sitting in cooling ponds on reactor sites is not a permanent solution--but you know, I really don't want it buried near me, either.  As I mentioned, this problem is probably more relevant to future generations than it is people currently alive, but there is an ethical problem with creating such a concerning problem and dumping it on future generations--perhaps mitigated by future technology that can solve the problem better than we can now.

2.) Nuclear is too expensive--more expensive by far than the conventional coal or natural gas plants, and more expensive than renewable energy--certainly more expensive than renewable energy could and will be as technology gets cheaper and if politicians stopped dismissing it's potential. Why waste time on such a costly and risky fix?

Perhaps that argument is weak sauce when compared to the benefits of lots of non-greenhouse-gas energy.

The other argument is philosophical:

3.) Nuclear power is just a distraction.  This is essentially the argument I tried to make earlier--although I argue that it is unfortunately a necessary one.  However, some of my colleagues are bold enough to say that since the time for an energy paradigm shift is nigh, let's do it right the first time.  Don't do something you know creates another unacceptable problem when you know what the real solution is, and that solution is renewable energy, most likely mixed with a more sustainable use of fossil fuels.  If we wait until a convenient "later" to switch from nuclear to renewable energy, later may never come, or will come only after a host of problems with steep human and economic costs forces us to switch.  At worst, a focus on nuclear energy will overshadow and thus further hinder development of renewable energy.

There is considerable debate over whether renewable energy, whether in current or future form, can really power some/most/all of our energy needs.  My experience with it leads me to believe that with not-so-distant future innovation, yes, it will be sufficient by itself, but with current technology, there is plenty of potential but the distribution and storage of energy has to change dramatically for us to really assess how much of our society we can power with it. If we focus on renewable energy, we will make those changes out of necessity.  If we focus on nuclear instead, we won't, because nuclear already fits into the "central production location creating power as is demanded" paradigm, and renewable energy, which doesn't work that way, will stay on the margins.  We could argue that we need nuclear to get to the carbon emissions reductions we desperately need to get to--or we could argue that necessity is the mother of invention and without relying on nuclear, necessity will drive us to skip the intermediate step and throw ourselves directly into the most sustainable solution that technology has given us so far, which is renewable energy.

I am swayed by that argument, because not only do I "believe" in the ideal of renewable energy but also of the imperative to use it--I see it in my work. Solar farms are not just a happy fuzzy butterflies pipe dream, my region is seeing ever larger and more powerful solar arrays being commissioned every month. It's a case of "perfect" verses "good," a phrase an environmental engineer I know uses to describe the balance he walks between pushing his company for sustainable solutions and doing what makes sense to continue to have manufacturing and the resultant jobs stay in the United States and be profitable.

Letting a drive for perfection get in the way of taking incremental steps, of choosing to do what is at least better than doing nothing, is a bad idea, especially if insisting on perfection only gets in the way of taking any steps at all.  But so, too, is getting complacent with marginal improvements, and not using will and vision to pursue the alternative that has the most benefits and the lowest cost, just because getting there is not an easy task.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Updated Fission Cost-Benefit Analysis

About six months ago, I posted my thoughts on the costs and benefits of nuclear power.  Nuclear power is a hot-point among we environmentalists:  some of us are staunchly, utterly opposed, some insist that it can be made reasonably safe and is an important piece of getting us out of this climate change mess.

In the context of the earthquake, tsumai, and corresponding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, it is certainly time to think about this once agian.

In my last post, I posed the question:  "In a cost-benefit analysis between a climate that is definitely warming up and changing even if we still don't know how much, and a remotely possible local but who knows maybe worldwide radiation induced horror, which would I choose?"

And I said I'd choose a warmer climate.

On further investigation I do not think I would choose a warmer climate, because the economic and human cost of billions of climate refugees, more frequent and stronger natural disasters, increased incidence of tropical disease, is clearly going to be more than the human cost of a nuclear disaster.  The human and economic cost of losing all of the land we're predicted to lose to rising seas enough would probably outweigh the cost of a nuclear disaster.   There is no such thing as a perfectly safe situation, the unthinkable happens, and not all contingencies can be planned or engineered for.  But we can learn from the mistakes of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the not-a-mistake-at-all situation in Fukushima.  Large scale disaster is unlikely, while climate disruption of some degree is almost a certainty.

However, I do not think nuclear is good for humanity; we have found that it and fossil fuels alike have consequences that, in a perfect world, are unacceptable for humanity.  Risks to health, environment, and well-being we should not settle for.  One day, we'll have to reckon with the consequences of those risks.

Right now, nobody has a good answer to what to do about nuclear waste.  No matter how safe nuclear power plants are--and there's good reason to think we can get really good at making those safe-- there is still the issue of the extremely hazardous waste they produce, that will be around for thousands of years.   Nobody wants it stored their community, threatening the integrity of their groundwater or their property values--and I don't blame them at all--but the concern is more than just a short-term one.

It seems incredibly naive to think we can isolate and keep that stuff out of the environment or the hands of terrorists for thousands of years.  Looking thousands of years into the future, it's not even a sure bet that the safeguards of a constant and well-governed state will be around to provide the stability that helps mitigate the risk.  We have been running reactors for forty years and we plan to make more and more waste, but we still do not have a solid plan for what to do with it even while a solid plan itself is laughable on the scale of thousands of years.

The upside to this is that we are likely to be able to to keep waste out of the environment for a few hundred years--although I'm not as optimistic about keeping it away from terrorists for that long--and the problems it will cause are left to far future generations, and are of unknown scope and who knows maybe they'll develop the technology to render it all harmless.

Since we've already left future generations a planet with an altered climate, morally I just can't feel good about that.  But we've got to fix this climate problem, morally you could say we owe it to the people alive right who expect to be alive throughout the next century to rapidly counteract greenhouse gas emissions.  Long-term, nuclear is not our answer--but we've already, however unknowingly, crossed the threshold into doing things that have steep and painful consequences with fossil fuels, and we have to deal and we have to act.

The technology for a truly sustainable energy exists and that isn't even counting future innovations, is getting cheaper and is expanding all the time, and ultimately needs to play the largest a role we can get it to play to have a society that can keep going without creating unacceptable risks. There is absolutely no reason to stop short of that goal.  That being said, nuclear provides an impressive amount of energy without producing greenhouse gases, and seems necessary to make a transition out of fossil fuels happen quickly and less painfully in light of the threat of climate change.

But then we need to transition out of that too, and really figure out how to solve the question of waste.

(Clarity note: I am not talking about Bomb-making potential when I refer to terrorists, being aware that most of the waste from the first few generation light water reactors doesn't make weapons-grade materials and that's one of their upsides in the eyes of the government.  However, it has always struck me that concentrated sources of a material that is dangerous to human life if entered into the atmosphere or groundwater would be a desirable sabotage target for the truly evil, and being suicidal wouldn't hurt.)

Friday, March 18, 2011


Thought for the day, from a Green Building journal:

"Convincing reluctant clients to go green is unnecessary--many green strategies should be incorporated as a matter of course."

This sums up quite succinctly what my job is about.  There is a lot of explaining, a lot of listening, and lot of trade-off research and presentation involved, and a lot of nerdtalk tried to be made simple, and yes, sometimes what the "green department" wants customers to put into their house because it's better by our philosophy are not things the customer or the rest of the company care much about because getting the job finalized (on company end), cost and conventional thinking (on customer end) get in the way.  Our job is to expand green practices, while not forcing those practices upon people.  Sometimes it feels like I do a lot of research and model-building and question answering all for naught, cause they then go and stick their furnace in the crawlspace anyway because that's what their HVAC contractor knows how to do and the architect forgot to make room on the floor-plans for a mechanical room.

You've just got to make good design practice be what you do, when you're in a position to do it, and not worry overmuch about labeling it "the green alternative."  Rather, it's the smart alternative and heck it's not even alternative-- it's part of our process because there are many reasons it makes sense for it to be.  It would be my dream that "green" as a term is made utterly irrelevant, because the process no longer needs "greening," and the "green" stuff is just as mainstream as everything else.

This isn't to say that everyone should put solar panels on their house (okay, there are good arguments as to why they should, but they can't, it is often impractical), but that the decision as to whether or not to install them should be just as obviously part of the design process as choosing between granite or fer-mica counter-tops.  In each case, cost-benefit trade-offs as part of the path from conception to final product.

In my job, I work to forward this in small ways.  I bring up energy efficient strategies to all customers who come my ways because they are good strategies, not just because they're the "green" ones that our "green" customers might want.  I create fact sheets to simplify technical information relevant to may aspects of building, and throw the green choices in with the conventional as if each is equally mainstream--because they are, in my world, they are becoming more and more so as this industry matures, and treating them that way on paper is a subtle force in that direction.  I work in the "green" department and the word "green" is constantly thrown around (though I prefer the word "sustainable" to describe the same philosophy) for the marketing value it gives us with people who self-identify with those ideas and look for their evidence in businesses they work with.  But the things we do, the solar panels on our roof that power our manufacturing plant, the way we build our wall panels to exceed even the strictest new energy codes (that was my big project--figuring out what those codes were and how we can top them), are things we do because we think they are things that need doing.