Industrial Solar, Wind, & Water Power: Are they really sustainable?
By Matt Powers
Green Washing is the practice of advertising and framing a product or a company as environmentally conscious. In many ways the environmentalist movement has been co-opted by the traditional industries in this way. Almost all forms of “green energy” are not environmentally sound in practice when the entire energy audit is taken into account. Solar, Hydro- & Wind power all obscure the environmental damage, the limited lifespan, & the actual manufacturing process by giving the user an end experience that seems like it is sustainable.
Currently both solar & wind power rely upon fossil fuels & rare earth metals. It can be argued that the mining and the processing alone of these materials is more damaging to the environment in the longterm than the savings in fossil fuel usage. Reports of the contamination of local water, air, & soil by solar power companies in China & elsewhere abound, but the connections aren’t being made by consumers or getting off the grid is less an ethical motivation & more a financial one for many. If we cannot see it as both an ethics & survival issue, we will instead perpetuate our degradation while calling it conservation.
Wind power companies though using somewhat less rare metals are still making large, costly & energy-intensive installations of only intermittent power sources that need constant management (starting & stopping with grid power), generate noise pollution, & disrupt bird migrations making large installations unethical by design.
Hydropower stations that are designed to impound large amounts of water are nearly all made to eventually silt up or require expensive management & maintenance. The expense of putting them in could have been placed in making a million smaller hydropower units that could have dispersed the generation of power, not turned flooded forests into large CO2 emissions, & saved immense amounts of destruction, energy, & expense. We have little of these resources left to use, we should use them wisely. We could all create hydrological systems that harness water using things like a trompe, a water wheel pump, or a mill. These work with moving water but do not try to contain it; they let it continue on to power other cycles.
Passive systems work using the reliable sources of power in nature like the sun, rain, seasonal flooding, the cold winter, etc. They use what nature has in abundance, leveraging it to create a usable product for people. These systems can be compost heaps, swales, trompes, & more. The closer the design is to solid state, or the less more parts, the better when it comes to creating systems that last & do not require as much or any human intervention. These two concepts can take our current world a lot further than we realize.
Wind, Water, & Solar power work reliably in passive systems, & we can use local resources ethically to create sustainable & regenerative sources of energy without fossil fuel input for creation & maintenance. Materials have to be acquired locally, be sustainable, & regeneratively sourced. These systems are often made out of earth, glass, metal, bamboo, wood, stone, bones, & more. They can take many forms & sizes. The smaller the better is often the case with these systems. The decentralized nature of smaller systems allows for more security & equitable distribution of power. This does not mean that fossil fuels cannot be leveraged to put these systems into place quickly, but we must be realistic about our end goals & our fully accounted energy consumption. We cannot perpetuate any system that cannot be maintained without fossil fuels.
The future does not have flying cars…
We can’t continue to consume more and more energy without harvesting unintended consequences. The atmosphere, oceans, soils, & the living world are all out of balance. We’ve warped the systems of the world as they try to compensate for our consumption. We cannot continue to consume as we have, and simultaneously we have to change how we acquire energy & materials quickly. We have to stand together & choose to not participate in fossil fuel consumption in all of its forms. This can’t happen over night, but it does have to start & steadily increase until we are free. This also means that gadgets, wireless devices, cars, planes, & much of what we call civilization has to be composted or repurposed though this doesn’t mean an end to technology, science or innovation. In fact it means a renaissance of all three.
Designs we can learn from exist like the trompe or air plant which creates nearly unlimited air pressure & cold water by way of dropping water down a tube or shaft & trapping air below. The Air Plant in Ontario, Canada, is a trompe utilizing an old cobalt silver mine shaft. It was built in 1910 & is still working today. Peter the Great’s summer mansion’s fountains are still running like clockwork using their trompe system despite being built in 1714. Any moving body of water can be redirected into a trompe & returned to its natural flow without damaging the ecology or polluting the water.
The rocket stove design is a j-tube that uses stick fires to reach clean burning temperatures for wood or even plastic! Deadfall branches can be used, effectively reducing energy input to gathering the sticks & breaking them by hand to place them in the bottom of the J-tube. No more emissions, no more logging, & no more expensive heating bills. Rocket stoves can also be used to create steam turbines though as with all steam based systems, they are very dangerous, but given time, research & study, can be utilized. In fact, nuclear power & coal plants are simply aggrandized steam turbine plants.
Cities and urban areas with large buildings can retrofit them with earth sheltering to cut down on heating & cooling costs as well as make a solar heater out of the walls that face the sun. The simple act of stacking soda cans, painting them black & encasing them under thermal glass creates an enormous amount of heat in the sun very quickly. This concept can be scaled up to line the sides of buildings or completely cover the walls of some buildings. The rising heat can be used to generate small amounts of power like LED lighting & to heat the air in the building. Water can also be used in place of the air for more thermal mass. The heated water can also be used to support an aquaculture system on the ground floor of the building, providing more thermal mass & a food source.
There are more ideas & more answers out there, but the basic principles are unchanging: simplicity, sustainability, & locally sourced. Every bioregion will have a unique answer to this challenge.
A humble future of work, peace & connection
We can have peace & connection, but it will take work. We can have all the desirable social outcomes we pursue currently in our broken system occur naturally, but we have to live naturally first. We have to have ethical systems to live in, believe in, & defend.
For example, we shouldn’t be lighting up the sky at night or riding in a car everyday. We shouldn’t be traveling across the globe for “fun”. We shouldn’t be liquidating the world’s natural capital for economic games that have no lasting value. We need a limit to our consumption & destruction; we have to scale back & live local. We need to replace our destruction with creation & grow our own food, fiber, & energy solutions. We have to imagine a world where we all slow down, not speed up, where we live mutualistically, not parasitically, where we compost or cycle all our waste, generate all our energy passively, & persistently build back the natural systems that once dominated the landscape, providing us with free & clean water, food, air, & forest. When we have those resources in abundance, recreation (re-creation), family life, & social connections increase. When we do not have clean water, air, food & wilderness, we see strain put on all social relationships and the cessation of recreation & peace. Limited resources always lead to conflict and war while abundance leads to collaboration & peace.
The only ethical thing to do is to take responsibility for ourselves, for our consumption, & for that of our children. Make it now!
The Canadian Trompe http://cobalt.ca/ragged-chutes/
Solar Power Plant Waste in China http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/08/AR2008030802595.html
Rare Earth Metals in Wind Power http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-01-05/china-rare-earths-leave-toxic-trail-to-toyota-prius-vestas-wind-turbines
Soda Can Solar Heater http://homesteadlifestyle.com/diy-greenhouse-soda-can-solar-heater/