Smoke and mirrors

Energy is clearly in the spotlight these days, and since I was quoted in a recent article by Jason Sandford (see “Solar Projects Catch Fire,” Nov. 26 Xpress), I am writing to clarify my position on this crucial issue facing our state and nation.

In fact, I do strongly believe that we need to force North Carolina’s utilities to move toward renewable sources. But Progress Energy’s planned Canton solar farm and its legislative parent, the energy policy outlined in Senate Bill 3 (passed by the General Assembly last year), won’t accomplish this end. Instead, this disastrous and irresponsible law merely creates the appearance of promoting a transformation to renewables.

In reality, however, it’s a prescription for perpetuating and even expanding our reliance on coal and nuclear power while continuing the pattern of wasteful energy use that has already brought us unhealthy air and the climate-change crisis.

By extending natural-gas pipelines throughout the state and letting electric utilities charge ratepayers for the cost of building of new coal-powered and nuclear plants before they come online, Senate Bill 3 will actually result in greater dependence on fossil fuels.

The state law’s “renewable-energy portfolio standard” is an insult to public health and the environment. As defined in this bill, most of these so-called “renewables” would fall far short of most people’s conception of the word. Direct combustion of chicken carcasses from industrial poultry factories, burning methane collected from hog-waste lagoons, and burning waste wood from corporate lumber operations using unsustainable forestry practices can hardly be called “renewable” technologies.

Meanwhile, under Senate Bill 3, the state’s utilities will be required to derive only 0.2 percent of the energy they produce from two legitimately renewable sources—solar heat and electric—combined In other words, rather than taking meaningful steps to reduce consumption, the law simply assumes that the state’s energy use will increase by about 30 percent by 2021. . Similarly, only 6.5 percent of that energy is required to come from efficiency measures by the year 2021. Furthermore, even these figures are based on a 2 percent annual growth in energy use projected by the industry.

And almost all of that excessive growth will be met by new coal and nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, the bill avoids changes in public energy policy that would result in dramatically reduced consumption, such as restructuring rates to provide economic incentives for investing in efficiency.

In this context, projects such as the Canton solar farm are only token showcases that give a deceptive impression of progress. After only a few hours of operation, Duke Energy’s planned 800-megawatt, coal-burning Cliffside power plant will emit as much CO2 as the 1 megawatt solar farm will offset in an entire year, effectively negating the Canton project’s impact. Thanks to Senate Bill 3 and the Faustian deal that brought us the Canton solar farm, ratepayers are being forced to spend $2.4 billion on Cliffside while being condemned to another half-century of burning coal.

Unquestionably, we need to develop solar, wind and other renewable-energy sources. But there’s a fundamental public misconception about these technologies that needs to be corrected: In and of itself, installing windmills and solar panels is not good for the environment.

Unlike planting trees or practicing permaculture, in which there’s a positive interaction with the biosphere, these technologies have negative environmental impacts. They become positive strategies only when they’re replacing older technologies that have an even greater negative impact—and when they’re accompanied by policies designed to reduce overall energy consumption.

Senate Bill 3 satisfies neither of those criteria. Therefore, the projects planned under this scheme—the package of massive new coal and nuclear power plants, plus new natural-gas lines, with minuscule solar and other misnamed “renewable” components—can only add further negative impacts to the health and environmental crisis we’re already experiencing.

Solar power generated by public utilities will become positive only when it’s part of a comprehensive program designed to transform the current energy system into a less-centralized, more-efficient grid resulting in reduced global energy consumption. Such a program should include strong economic incentives for consumers to use less electricity. In contrast, the Canton project is part of a program that attempts to perpetuate the existing centralized, wasteful energy system.

Don’t be fooled by the corporate public-relations campaign: Demand that our elected officials and public agencies adopt real solutions to address climate change and air pollution!

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[Avram Friedman is executive director of the Sylva-based Canary Coalition, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.]

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