Energy Costs: There Is No Free Lunch

In this installment of their regular column, Anne and Paul Ehrlich made a detailed survey of energy costs — the economic, environmental, and social costs of extracting and using the energy forms most prevalent in 1980.

066 energy costs - Fotolia - Kletr

Every form of energy has costs, but some have higher costs than others.


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Nothing enrages the oil companies' publicity hacks more than the statement we've often made: "Giving inexpensive and abundant energy to Americans today would be like giving a machine gun to an idiot child." However, that view — as much as it may conflict with the corporate cheerfulness of the multinationals — simply reflects our own concern about the energy-intensive assaults that this society has launched (and continues to launch) upon Earth's life-support systems.

If humanity hopes to preserve the planet's vital interrelated support systems (instead of paving them over or plowing them under), two important decisions must be made: How much energy should we mobilize, and how should we mobilize it? Such decisions can be intelligently made, however, only if one completely understands energy costs, or the costs that accompany the benefits of each energy technology.

It's a well-known economic principle that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch," and that maxim applies to the energy field as well. No source of energy — no matter how clean or abundant it may be — comes without its costs, which must be taken into consideration right along with the technology's positive effects. So, to guide you in the continuing debate over energy use, we'd like to present a "score card" of the liabilities of a number of potential power sources.

Fossil Fuels

The operation of our present energy economy depends upon fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas), and there are, as you know, a considerable number of liabilities associated with their use. Occupational hazards — such as coal mine explosions and the dangers involved in drilling and transporting oil and gas — make such combustibles rather nasty to mobilize.

The use of fossil fuels also incurs direct health costs primarily as a result of the air pollution produced by their combustion. The greatest overall liability of fossil fuels, however — and that which poses the most immediate threat — is the negative effect of their use on environmental systems. The full danger presented by oil spills is not yet totally understood, but is certainly worthy of concern; aquatic systems in the western U.S. will be damaged as water is diverted for use in coal and oil shale operations; and, of course, few human activities are more directly destructive of the environment than strip mining for coal.

Acid rains (which are a product of air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels) are now threatening the lakes, streams, and soils of vast areas, and the same phenomenon will probably have an increasingly harmful effect on future crop production and forest growth. Worst of all, the by-products of petroleum combustion — carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates — have the potential to alter global weather patterns. As physicist John Holdren has written, "A CO2 climate-induced famine, killing a billion people before 2020, certainly cannot be ruled out."

Finally, it's impossible to ignore the political liabilities of our dependence on oil: Current struggles over supplies of that precious fuel could very well escalate into World War III, an event that, obviously, would be the ultimate public health and environmental calamity.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear fission shares some of the liabilities of fossil fuels, but it also has unique problems of its own. The ecological hazards of using atomic power are actually slight: It has been shown — as we've pointed out in previous columns — that ecosystems are quite resistant to the effects of radiation, even at quite high levels. The hazards involved in obtaining such fuel are also relatively small, since fewer miners are needed to extract uranium than coal and the nuclear fuel is mined in much smaller quantities than the fossil product. In addition, the direct health threats associated with routine operation of nuclear power plants may actually be smaller than those associated with burning fossil fuels (although this question has not yet been adequately explored).

A major liability of nuclear power, though, is our inability to estimate hazards from non-routine occurrences, such as the narrowly averted disaster at Three Mile Island. Although the number of immediate deaths from a major nuclear accident probably wouldn't total any more than those resulting from the explosion of an LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) tanker, nuclear power also carries the long-term threat of lingering deaths from cancer, and of making substantial areas essentially permanently uninhabitable.

Another problem unique to nuclear fission is the disposal of long-lived toxic wastes. Most experts maintain that the dilemma can be solved, but we haven't yet seen a viable solution. And the problem of radioactive waste may prove to be politically insoluble, anyway, thanks to the nuclear establishment's now well-known incompetence and dishonesty. Because of this, very few people may be willing to live near a nuclear waste dump even if there are solemn promises of safety by the government.

Most important, nuclear power — like fossil fuels — can have political consequences. The widespread use of such energy would likely accelerate weapons proliferation, which could lead to atomic attacks even by terrorist groups ... a development that, once again, could possibly contribute to the ignition of World War III.

Renewable Sources

Many people — in the face of such dangerous costs — are rejecting combustion and fissile fuels in favor of renewable energy sources. But even such relatively benign technologies are, especially when considered on any but an individual scale, not without serious liabilities. (Although the "lunch" in this case may be more palatable, it still isn't free!)

Of all our renewable resources, hydropower is the only one that has been used on a scale large enough to project its costs. Large dams literally wipe out the terrestial ecosystems that end up under water, and the huge structures can also have a substantial negative effect on agriculture and fisheries (as has Egypt's Aswan High Dam).

The most obvious hazard of hydroelectricity, though, is dam failure: Such a disaster would kill many thousands of people. (In fact, we feel that having to choose between living downwind from a nuclear plant or downstream from a large dam would involve a tough decision, indeed!)

Solar power doesn't offer a completely free lunch, either. Most home applications of sun energy — such as space and water heating — are certainly labor intensive (which is clearly a plus for unemployment), but that very factor results in a high occupational hazard per unit of energy produced.

The health cost of domestic solar usage is difficult to compute, since it's necessary to calculate the number of man-days lost in installing solar devices minus those that would have been lost by those workers in non solar employment.

Generation of electricity by central solar power plants would also accrue health and environmental liabilities ... both as a result of procuring and constructing the large amounts of equipment required, and of operating backup technologies during those periods when storage capacities weren't able to see the plants through extended nonsunny intervals. Such power-producing plants would also require enormous banks of solar collectors in desert areas and would operate, obviously, to the detriment of fragile desert ecosystems.

Solar power via biomass (which requires growing large quantities of plants for direct burning or for conversion to liquid fuels) also presents a variety of costs. Occupational accidents could occur in the harvesting and conversion of the vegetable matter. The problems of soil preservation — and perhaps of pest control — that are associated with any form of high-yield agriculture would certainly raise their ugly heads. And, of course, land used for biomass would be unavailable for food production (which could lead to serious political consequences in this hungry world).

Most renewable energy sources are now used on such a small scale that any hazards they might entail in wider applications can — at best — be only conjectural. Windplants, for instance, could have dangerous structural failures; ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) devices may leak their working fluids or eventually alter seawater temperatures; and geothermal systems can produce both air and water pollution. As you might expect, such methods also present occupational hazards, and they would have adverse environmental impact as a result of the procurement of materials for their construction.

Nuclear fusion power has been widely hailed as the newest "miracle cure" for our energy problems, but that particular lunch, too, has its price tag. Fusion, if it ever proves practical, could present a formidable radiological threat, along with some occupational hazards. Breeder reactors, another of the nuclear industry's pet projects, could greatly extend the life of Earth's uranium reserves. But such facilities share the liabilities of nuclear fission plants and may be even more subject to both catastrophic accidents and diversion of fissile material for bombmaking.

Conservation — on the other hand — is considered by many people to be the cleanest, safest, and most readily available "source" of energy now available to us. Even that sensible option involves certain liabilities, however. Sealing up houses to save energy only intensifies such internal air pollution problems as cigarette smoke, gas from cookstoves, solvents that evaporate from plastics, and so forth. The production (and often the use of) insulating materials also involves occupational and environmental hazards. And lighter, more fuel-efficient cars may be physically dangerous to drive. Truly no lunch (not even a wholesome, carefully planned one) is ever free!

Comparing and Choosing Options

It's important to note, however, that some options on the energy menu are much more prohibitively expensive (in terms of liabilities) than others. For instance, comparing the occupational hazards connected with installing solar collectors on roofs or the possibility of leaking fluid from an OTEC system on one hand with the dangers of acid rains or nuclear proliferation on the other is equivalent to comparing the perils of catching the flu with those of contracting lung cancer. While the precise quantitative difference may be difficult to measure (is the cancer a hundred times worse? a thousand? a million?), only a fool would fail to recognize the qualitative disparity.

In conclusion, then (at least when approached strictly from a health-and-environment point of view), our best energy options may lie in a combination of renewables, nuclear fusion (provided the right technology for it can be found), and strong conservation measures. Despite their liabilities, those choices present a path that is generally safer — and more sustainable — than that of fossil fuels and nuclear fission.

There are, however, other important criteria to bear in mind when making energy decisions, which we'll discuss in another column.

A detailed discussion of the health and environmental effects of energy technologies can be found in Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment , by Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and John P. Holdren  

In December 1981 Anne and Paul Ehrlich, and their friend and coauthor John Holdren, will join MOTHER EARTH NEWS for a unique South Pacific Seminar on the idyllic islands of Bora Bora and Raïatéa.   

Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who—through their writing and research—gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources," and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term coevolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb) . . . far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present—on a regular basis—these semi-technical columns by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.