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SEA Change: Clean our skies: Invest in renewable energy

Published: October 24, 2008
Section: Opinions


Fossil fuel power plants emit huge amounts of pollution. Renewable sources of energy emit almost none. The carbon dioxide from power plants accelerates global climate change, but other, more immediate effects are often overlooked. The nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide released transform to nitric and sulfuric acids and precipitate as acid rain, which kills plants and animals. Smoke from coal burning can also have serious health consequences, particularly in the lungs (most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not heat). People inhale 20,000 liters of air each day, compared to drinking just 2 liters of water. We insist that our drinking water be as clean as possible, but why are we okay with letting so much pollution into our air?

There have been some great advances in pollution control. Scrubbers, precipitators, and filters have reduced pollution at power plants by a good amount. However, the best way to limit the amount of pollution that affects us is to prevent it from being generated in the first place. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal power have almost no effects on global warming, human health, or plant and animal life, especially compared with our current sources of energy. Last week, Thomas Friedman aptly pointed out that most things will work just the same whether we use dirty or clean sources, so people are interested in which is cheaper and easier to get. We need to recognize that coal, oil, and natural gas have large negative effects that just aren’t taken into account when evaluating and pricing them. If we looked at the effects of their pollution, electricity from fossil fuel plants would cost a lot more. This inefficiency is holding back the move to solar, wind, and other energies which have almost no external effects.

Renewable sources could not currently be our entire source of power, but by substituting these clean sources for dirtier ones we can definitely minimize our impact on the environment and on the population in general. The Cape Wind project to build America’s first offshore wind farm in the Nantucket Sound would be able to provide around 75% of the electricity needs for the Cape and Islands, reducing several thousand tons of harmful air pollutants as well as 734,000 tons of carbon dioxide. People often dismiss renewable energy by saying that there’s no point in building a wind turbine or installing solar panels because their effect is minimal in the greater scheme of things, but adding up many small sources can certainly have a large effect.

The United States economy would also benefit from investing in alternate energy sources. If we advance solar, wind, and other technologies we could use them at home and export the information and technology abroad. We would also use less oil in generating electricity, minimizing our dependence on it and the amount of money we send abroad for it. Energy independence has been touted by both presidential candidates as a necessary goal for the country, and producing clean energy within our borders would help. The growth of renewable energy would stimulate the economy and lead to job growth as the demand for solar panels, wind turbines, and other technology grew.

Knowing the effects of air pollution, there is no sound reason not to invest in renewable energies. Dirty power plants send chemicals and particulates into the air which then comes back to harm us. It may look like the pollutants just float away, but they all come down somewhere. Renewable energy sources, on the other hand, are much cleaner and have almost no health impacts. They do not produce as much power as traditional power plants do, but with more investment and development they can become a much more reliable source of energy.