Chasing The Elusive Free Lunch


Chasing The Elusive Free Lunch

By MIKE ZAGATA • Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal

When it comes to energy, and most everything else, there is no free lunch.  At present, the City and Town of Oneonta are looking at geo-thermal energy to heat buildings and huge batteries to store solar energy.  Solar energy and wind power are also being touted as our saviors with regards to climate change.

What do the facts tell us?

Geothermal heat as an energy source is based upon the fact that our earth’s temperature at a given depth beneath the surface is relatively constant and that constant temperature is generally cooler than the surface temperature during the summer.

If you’ve been down inside Howe Caverns in the summertime, you’ll remember being asked to wear a jacket as it’s about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Thus, if you pump water, often laden with antifreeze, down into the ground and then circulate it back to the surface, the water that returns will be about 55 degrees.

That “cool” water can be used to cool your home.

However, during the winter you will still need a secondary source of energy to bring the temperature up to a comfortable range.  Geothermal enthusiasts refer to this as a secondary heat source and resistance-based electric strips are often used.

So now we know two things about geothermal that aren’t openly discussed.  First, it takes electricity to run the pumps that make the system function – lots of it.  Where does that electricity come from at night – coal-fired or gas-fired generating plants.


Second, electricity is needed again – this time to push electrons through the resistance strips to create the secondary heat source to move your thermostat from 55 to 68 degrees (comfortable heat range) during winter.

One of the unintended consequences of the highly touted “solar farms” is the amount of land required to generate a significant amount of energy.

For example, according to a recent article, a California-based solar power development company has submitted plans to New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) for a solar farm that would cover 900 acres of central Niagara County farmland with solar panels 12-feet high.

That project would be able to generate 100 megawatts of power, enough to provide electricity for only 25,000 homes.  New York State has about 19 million residents.

The PSC released information that even larger projects are being proposed elsewhere in the state.  Do we really want to take hundreds of thousands of acres of our forest and crop lands out of production by covering them with solar panels?  That would adversely affect our agricultural, forest and tourism industries while simultaneously evicting the wildlife occupying those lands.

An even more significant consequence in the fight against climate change is that the lands covered with solar panels would no longer be able to sequester carbon.

And what about those giant batteries needed to store the solar energy generated during our 160 days per year of sunlight?

The batteries that are used to store “renewable” energy like sunlight and wind power are lithium-ion batteries.  The raw materials used to make them are mined in China, Russia and the Congo – countries that don’t have the strict mining regulations to protect the environment like those in the USA.

The mining of those raw materials, their transportation to where they are used to manufacture the batteries and the actual manufacturing processes used to manufacture the batteries are all carbon intensive, i.e. they use large quantities of fossil fuels.

Thus, for the first 10 years of the batteries’ life cycle they are actually carbon negative – much like the batteries in electric cars.  Another Whoops!

The purpose of this article isn’t to demean the need for finding ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  Rather, it’s intended to get us to think about the pros AND cons of the choices before us.

When it comes to our energy options, there is no free lunch.  It is expensive to install the various systems that are being touted as a “panacea.”  Thus, it’s important from an economic and an environmental perspective that we make the right choices.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to use the least polluting of the fossil fuels, natural gas, as a bridge to viable renewables.

Mike Zagata, a DEC commissioner in the Pataki Administration and former environmental executive for Fortune 500 companies, lives in West Davenport.


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