Renewables — essential, but not sufficient

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Our economy is based on oil, and our leaders view oil as the key to retaining our global military supremacy. After oil production peaked in the U.S. in the 1970s, attention focused on securing energy supplies from the Mideast and Africa through negotiations, political machinations and wars.

While not abandoning our existing global oil ventures, our interests are expanding to include the vast potential of the Asian-Pacific region, as recently announced by President Barack Obama. Through forming alliances with Asian countries and increasing our naval presence in the South China Sea, the major shipping route of oil to China, tensions between China and the United States are likely to increase.

Within North America, increased oil and gas supplies from Arctic waters off Alaska, deep-water wells in the Gulf and shale deposits have improved the short-term outlook for energy supplies. Securing these supplies in high-risk areas or through the use of risky technologies is likely to produce extensive environmental damage. If successful, efforts to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases will add to the adverse environmental impacts of these efforts to add to our energy supplies.

Energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy sources are frequently promoted as reducing our oil dependence, increasing our energy security and reducing the environmental damage from the use of fossil fuels. Often overlooked in their promotion is that they, too, have adverse environmental impacts. However, during their operation, they do dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants as compared to those released from the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas.

Mining and processing materials for what are considered renewable or sustainable energy sources, manufacturing the equipment and transporting and installing them at scattered locations all involve the consumption of nonrenewable resources and fossil fuels.

As with other technologies, renewable technologies have a limited life span and will require periodic replacement. At the end of their useful life, they will have to be disposed of or recycled in environmentally acceptable ways.

Solar-powered steam turbines in desert locations rely on groundwater sources to wash reflective surfaces, cool equipment and replace water lost to evaporation. The water is likely to be drawn from depletable underground sources.

Industrial-sized wind generators require a substantial base of concrete and steel rebar to anchor them in the ground. Their production involves energy-intensive processes.

Unfortunately, many of the sites targeted for the installation of renewable energy sources are great distances from the markets for energy supplies. New grid installations and upgrades are required to bring the renewable energy output to the marketplace.

While renewable energy sources are essential to our energy future, we need to consider the possibility they will not provide enough energy to power our existing economy. Given that possibility, redesigning our households and communities to dramatically reduce energy consumption would stimulate employment, strengthen local economies and begin the implementation of a sustainable energy system.

The recent ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission that Chinese solar panel and cell imports are harming the American solar manufacturing industry could bring a temporary end to the dramatic drop in the prices of solar systems. If so, it would be a good time to install a system.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Dec. 14-20, 2011, issue

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