Sunday, December 13, 2009

If Your Grid Is Dirty

If you are getting your power from a dirty electric grid, you are using dirty power. In other words, if your electric lamp is plugged into a system that is powered somewhere along your power line with a power generator that pollutes or emits greenhouse gases into our atmosphere (or otherwise harms our environment), your lamp is using dirty power. (Presently, we New Yorkers get 18% of our power from coal; 17% from hydroelectric, 1% wind, 1% biomass, 1% solar, 1% solid waste, 12% oil, 29% nuclear, and 22% natural gas.)

This is not an opinion or a particularly profound insight. But it is a quirk of human nature that our species, since it became a cultural being instead of a hunter gatherer, tends to see what it wants to see—if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. Meaning, in this case, if you don’t see that dirty power plant polluting the planet at the end of your plug, you can allow yourself to think that you aren’t significantly contributing to global warming. Hence, if you don’t wish to educate yourself about how we get our energy from mostly coal and gas and other non-renewable sources (or even to bother your pretty little head about it), our culture makes that chimera convenient .

Consequently, if you don’t wish to see it, it’s quite easy to miss. The coal power plant that runs your lights is far away, and the damage it’s doing not immediately apparent—in the way that it’s not immediate apparent to an uneducated mind that the earth is oblong spheroid not flat. But on the other hand, a wind turbine appears to some people to be very damaging, spinning its colossal blades, making odd noises, flickering sunlight if you look at it from just the right angle. And it may well be very offending to your sensibilities.

However, as annoying as wind or solar power may be to some, neither wind nor solar power contributes to global warming by polluting the atmosphere. This makes renewable energy quite a scale of difference from non-renewable or dirty energy. The neighborhood cat roaming your neighborhood, screeching at night and killing some birds at your feeder, is annoying, but a tiger on the loose is altogether different. Renewable energy options have their issues and need to be addressed, but we can deal with them. But, like the tiger analogy, there’s no way to make coal clean.

Our way of living, removed as it is from mere subsistence by labor-saving devices, has created an illusion out of our environment for some. Our houses, our skyscrapers, roads, and all the other stuff we have piled on to mitigate the harshness of nature has so thrown into the background the mechanism of our environment—wetlands, streams, lakes, our atmosphere--that many have conveniently forgotten or not educated themselves that we need a certain amount of these natural elements to sustain our environment. And, of course, there are those whose agendas include making darn sure you keep your illusions so their income and livelihood stays secure.

If you just don’t care if the power you use to power your stuff is dirty, that is another kettle of fish entirely.

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