Respone to Michael Grunwald’s “Seven Myths About Alternative Energy”

7 Sep

Stimulating article by Michael Grunwald in Foreign Policy: “Seven Myths About Alternative Energy.” Good discussion online, too. Here’s what I wrote:

“This article’s basic point is that while developing alternative energy technologies is a worth long-term objective, a more profitable short-term goal is to encourage efficiency, i.e. “doing more with less,” i.e. “conservation.”

I think we can all agree that doing more with less is in fact a worthy goal, both in the short and long terms. But Grunwald’s argument contradicts itself on a crucial point. He writes: “It’s not about some austerity scold harassing you to take cooler showers, turn off light, turn down thermostats, drive less, fly less, buy less stuff, eat less meat, ditch your McMansion, and otherwise change your behavior to save energy … Efficiency is about doing more or the same with less; it doesn’t require much effort or sacrifice.”

Sounds good: we can consume less fossil fuel and lower our carbon footprint by making more efficient refrigerators, blow dryers, cars, TV, and so on. And we don’t have to modify our consumerist behavior or change our lives in any way. Go ahead an buy a brand new McMansion–just be sure to furnish it with energy-efficient appliances.

But, of course, there are problems here. Some devices have become more efficient over the past several decades. But does this mean that we can make all devices follow suit? Have refrigerators become about as efficient as they’re going to get? Or is there room for vastly more improvement? I don’t know. But what about the notion of encouraging people to make do with smaller fridges and TVs and cars and computers and so on? In other words, somehow forcing/encouraging people to in fact change their lifestyles.

Toward the end of the piece, Grunwald in fact acknowledges that for “efficiency” to work, people will in fact have to sacrifice and make significant changes in how they consume energy. He write: “Let’s face it: Jimmy Carter was right. It wouldn’t kill you to turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Efficiency is a miracle drug [really?], but conservation is even better; a Prius saves gas, but a Prius sitting in the driveway while you ride your bike uses no gas. Even energy efficient dryers use more power than clothes lines. … We might have to unplug a few digital picture frames, substitute teleconferencing for some business travel, and take is easy on the air conditioner.”

So, which is it? Can we embrace efficiency withing having to change how we consume energy? Or not? If not, how likely are people to voluntarily turn down the heat and put on a sweater? Or bike to work–a wonderful thing if you happen to live some place with bike lanes and a short commute, but not so great if peddling to the office means braving a freeway shoulder.”

I’ll add a few thoughts here …

Articles like this are useful for stimulating debate about alternative energy, but I have a problem with the way this piece is structured and argued. First, each section begins with a quote taken out of context, which the article then attacks and dismantles. There’s no mention of where quotes come from, who said them, etc.

Next, the article’s many claims offer no evidence or references. For example: “Researchers used to agree that farm-grown fuels would cut emissions because they all made a shockingly basic error. they gave fuel crops credit for soaking up carbon while growing, but it never occurred to them that fuel crops might displace vegetation that soaked up even more carbon.”

Now, there’s certainly a legitimate claim here. It seems logical that the more fields we need to grow crops for bioeful production, the more forestland we’ll need to clear to make way for tillable land.

But it’s overly simplistic to equate farming with deforestation. Consider a recent study finding that many of the world’s farmers actually help to protect trees and plant more of them, because trees often make farms more profitable.

Also consider that at least some energy crops could potentially be grown on currently barren land, or land unfit for reforestation or other uses. And the move toward cellulosic ethanol would make use of corn cobs and other detritus left over from the harvesting of existing crops.

The point is that Grunwald’s article makes some valuable points but does so in a manner that too easily dismisses many important ideas and ongoing innovations in renewable energy technology in order to tout “efficiency” as the true answer to out energy problems. Efficiency does and will play a role. Renewable energy technologies are not magical solutions–many are still in early stages of development; some will mature, some will fail. But let’s not dismiss ideas as “myths” quite yet.

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