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Saturday, April 28, 2012

What is the least bad RE?

On Thursday I started my course on renewable energy at San Jose State. As far as I know this is the first time EE/RE has been covered in the College of Business, and is the net result of the SJSU Solar Workforce Project (July 2010 - June 2012) funded by the state of California and the Green Innovation Challenge.

One of the questions I asked students was: which renewable energy is least bad? For “bad” I meant expensive, less useful, technically infeasible or other issues. (We didn’t bother to do this with coal and other fossil fuels because I’d already covered those issues in the opening lecture).

Everyone had a preferred energy source, but then the others in the room shot holes in it.

First up was biofuels. Biofuels are scalable, but they tend to divert agricultural land from food production (or divert food from eating to energy production) and thus increase the price of food. They also deplete the soil.

Next up was solar. It’s a great way to produce RE, but the most capital intensive energy generation approach available. It also ties up land (in some parts of the country, at least) that has other valuable use. And if the panels are made with CdTe or other toxic chemicals, you have to do something with them.

Wind — like solar — has a storage problem. Like utility scale solar, and coal, there are often transmission line costs and losses from the location where the wind exists (e.g. from the Midwest back to the Northeast). Its time of day generation is unpredictable. It also has its problems obstructing the views of locals and killing birds.

To me, hydro seemed like the no brainer — it's the lowest capital cost of any RE, with a proven technology. Unlike solar and wind, it allows generation when power is needed rather than when the energy is available. However, as a student from Pakistan pointed out, installing a dam by definition floods existing lands, and can displace farmers and villagers from their existing locations. (She also note that as with other water claims, the upstream choices for hydro generation impacts the hydro generating options downstream).

I don’t know why I forgot about the environmental impact of dams. The most notorious case in California is the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Some 90 years ago, John Muir (and now the Sierra Club) fought unsuccessfully to keep San Francisco from flooding the Sierra mountain valley that Muir argued was every bit as beautiful as the Yosemite Valley.

At first glance, this might be a depressing conclusion. But the reality is that unless we want to go back to the horse and buggy, our economy requires energy. Life is full of tradeoffs, and a key theme of the course is using tools of economic analysis to optimize the allocation of scarce public or private resources to achieve environmental (or other) goals.

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