from CARL SEELEY
To the Editor:
I don’t always catch Mike Zagata’s column, but every time I do, he’s revisiting the same two themes—one right, one wrong.
Theme One is that even “green” technologies have negative environmental impacts. This is true, and it’s important to understand and keep in mind. When we get electricity from photovoltaics rather than coal or gas, we reduce our CO2 emissions, but we increase other impacts related to the mining of particular materials and the manufacturing process for the panels.
Examples are easily multiplied, because very few technologies are actually zero-impact, never mind restorative, leaving ecosystems better than we found them. To the extent that people are naïve about that, it’s good provide a reminder of reality.
Mr. Zagata’s second theme has two forms. Theme 2A is an explicit claim that something being touted as a “green” technology is actually worse than what we’re doing. This is what he said back on Jan. 24-25 about electric cars, and as discussed in my response published the next week, he was factually wrong.
Theme 2B doesn’t go as far as 2A. It’s not an explicit claim that some “green” technology is actually a bad idea. It is, instead, a focus on the green technology’s environmental impacts, with an implication that it’s not worth adopting.
This argument makes little sense, and sometimes Mr. Zagata blends it with other misleading or false statements. His recent discussion of geothermal heating is a case in point.
Yes, geothermal uses some electricity for the operation of the system (though Mr. Zagata’s April 25-26 column on the subject suggested he didn’t understand the basic workings of heat pumps). And yes, most people’s electricity still comes – at least in part – from fossil-fuel combustion.
It’s nonetheless true that heating your house with geothermal produces less CO2 than running electricity through a baseboard heater, or burning gas, oil, or wood. Why is Mr. Zagata trying to talk people out of that?
Most recently, in his May 23-24 column, Mr. Zagata takes apart a reader’s claim that their electricity is “clean” because they get it from a supplier of renewable energy. Mr. Zagata here is partly right, because it’s true that all the power in the grid gets mingled together in ways that we don’t usually think about.
If I go to the farmer’s market and buy a steak from Tauzel’s, the beef I’m eating actually was raised in Schenevus; it’s not mixed in with a bunch of other beef from, say, a Nebraska feedlot.
Electricity is different. If I buy power from a solar farm in Laurens, I’m not getting those “electrons.” The power produced there is put onto the grid and finds its own best route through the vast web of producers and consumers.
As with geothermal, we’re at Mr. Zagata’s theme 2B: you may think your electricity is clean, but you’re still getting power from gas-fired plants, so don’t bother with your “green” efforts. But this is misguided.
When you buy from a solar farm, you aren’t purifying yourself of involvement with fossil electricity, and you aren’t eliminating your environmental impact, and you shouldn’t tell yourself that you are. Nonetheless, you are helping. You’re increasing market demand for sources like solar that, while not perfect, are better. As that demand increases, our power system shifts to a mix of sources that are cleaner. Not clean, but cleaner. Not perfect, but still an improvement.
Green technologies are not miracle workers. Our daily lives will always have impacts on the world around us. But there are vitally important reasons for reducing those impacts, and there are practical ways of doing that, such as electric cars and geothermal heating.
Mr. Zagata’s crusade against these efforts is a disservice to the public.
Professor of Economics, Hartwick College