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The value of energy to society

October 23, 2013

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

After World War II, there was a dramatic expansion of energy use in our country. Energy production increased, industry expanded, the interstate highway system was built, the suburbs grew, and agriculture was industrialized. A similar growth pattern is occurring globally.

The growth was based on abundant, low-cost energy, aided by government subsidies, while its environmental and social costs were essentially ignored. Eventually, the public reacted against the degradation, and federal action served to stimulate environmental and energy reforms. Then, cheap, abundant oil supplies from the Mideast undermined efficiency and renewable energy programs. The costs of protecting oil supplies from the Mideast rose dramatically, but were hidden in the military budget and did not show up in our energy bills.

The recent euphoria over the abundance of fossil fuels from fracking for natural gas and shale oil, deep-ocean oil drilling, and plans to expand and modernize the electric grid offer the promise of economic growth and jobs.

Unconventional sources take more energy to capture and process, leaving less energy to produce other goods and services useful to society. Using more energy to get energy adds costs, which, in turn, inflates the cost of other goods and services to society. One way to hold down the cost of energy is to ignore their adverse environmental and social impacts. Fracking was excluded from existing federal pollution control laws, and attempts to control carbon on the federal level have not been successful.

From 2006 to 2011, imports of crude oil from tar sands tripled. Crude oil requires refining to turn it into useful fuel. Citizens living near the refineries in Whiting, Ind., and Detroit have raised concerns about the environmental and health impacts of processing tar sands oil. With still more refineries processing tar sands oil in the Midwest, citizen concerns are likely to increase, eventually leading to stricter environmental controls.

Expansion of the electric grid in the Midwest has also met some resistance. Eight grid expansion projects are targeted for Illinois. The two planned by ComEd are being modified to address citizen concerns. While in favor of wind energy, the president of the Illinois Farm Bureau has expressed opposition to three other proposed power line expansions in Illinois, primarily because of their impact on farming.

One vision of a cleaner energy future includes expanding and upgrading the grid to move electricity from wind and solar farms to market. Another vision encourages a decentralized approach encouraging local power production from renewable energy sources. Both approaches envision the use of electric vehicles and components of the smart grid.

A Wisconsin-based organization, Soul, is concerned that the 10 announced grid expansion projects slated for the Midwest will not be cost-effective while providing few benefits to rate-payers. They prefer funding local energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

Beyond these different visions of expanded energy supplies and the need to incorporate environmental and social impacts into the price of energy are other concerns. Will the focus on increasing energy supplies produce the economic growth envisioned? Is such growth, primarily based on fossil fuels, appropriate on a planet already under severe environmental stress?

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 sonia@essex1.com.

From the Oct. 23-29, 2013, issue

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