In this season of darkness and light, do we consider what it takes to keep the lights lit, the mall muzak playing, the airplanes fuelled and the cars running? The answers to these questions can be difficult. Most of us, whether we like it or not, depend on power from polluting fossil fuels, or from nuclear energy.
The political and environmental issues with fossil fuels are well known. As the price of oil rises, it becomes increasingly profitable to exploit dirtier oil reserves at ever greater financial and environmental cost.
Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power is often held up to be emissions-free, but that is not telling the whole story. Uranium mines are far from the reactors they fuel, so emissions are produced in transporting uranium. The mining process itself is problematic. While much expensive effort is taken to keep the nuclear generation process safe, we have seen the tragic consequences that happen when the fail safes fail, as they did recently in Fukushima, Japan. Even the “safest” nuclear reactor produces harmful waste, creating a problem for thousands of years to come.
Hydro is touted by some as a green energy. But hydroelectricity necessitates building dams, which can greatly change local ecosystems. A recent example is the proposed Belo Monte dam in Brazil, which was only halted after sustained outcry.
Increasingly in recent years, governments (especially those in Europe) have chosen to increase the amount of energy they get from renewable resources such as solar, geothermal and wind. It is important to understand that while this is absolutely a step in the right direction, there are still some issues to resolve. People living near large wind turbines complain of health effects from the noise and flicker they produce. Also, wind generation currently varies depending on how the wind is blowing, while hybrid power systems that address this variability have not yet gone mainstream.
In the meantime, people are turning to natural gas energy as a backup for wind’s variability. Yet this gas is extracted from the earth in a process called fracking that is anything but natural. Turbines themselves are placed in environmentally sensitive areas. Solar panels are sometimes placed on arable farmland, destroying topsoil that took decades to develop. While the costs of solar and wind are coming down as the technologies become more widespread, they still appear significantly higher than the costs of traditional sources.
This is not to say that all sources of energy are equally problematic. Some clearly affect the environment more extensively than others. But it is important to remember that each one of us inescapably casts a shadow on the planet. It is easy, in our snug and well-lit home, to feel divorced from the effects of our consumption. But they are there.
Powerful lobby groups argue for more of one kind of energy or less of another. Governments are loath to increase the cost of electricity and anger their electorate. As such, what keeps your lights on is a political issue as well as an environmental issue. In some way, the consciousness of the choices made at a political level will affect us as we consume the energy supplied to us. Unless we choose to live “off the grid”, in some way we are tapped into these complicated situations every time we flip a light switch.
There is no magic solution. Our responsibility is to be aware and to do what we can to make choices that diminish the impact on the planet. That could mean opting for a more fuel-efficient car, taking the train instead of flying, calling on your government to support renewable energy, or choosing a smaller, more energy-efficient home. And whatever the size of your home, remember to practice energy conservation. Each of us can at least do a little to reduce the load, so that keeping the lights on can come at less cost to us and to the planet.