Thursday, May 26, 2005

Climate Change in Virginia

Virginia NA-YGNmembers Mike Stuart, Joe Montague and I attended a "Richmond Townhall Meeting" organized Tuesday night by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). The website says

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network is the first grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to fighting global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Our mission is to educate and mobilize citizens of this region in a way that fosters a rapid societal switch to clean energy and energy-efficient products, thus joining similar efforts worldwide to slow and perhaps halt the dangerous trend of global warming.
Mike began working the room immediately and recognized a fellow from the local Sierra Club that he had met at the state fair. This local environmental leader is NOT against nuclear power. In fact, he supports it as a means to combat pollution and global warming in the near-term. I shared a couple of quotes from James Lovelock. His feeling appears to be that the need is so urgent that we must use "less than perfect" technologies to save the environment.

CCAN began with a short introduction and said that this was the first of many town hall meetings they plan in the next year. Their goal is to pass legislation for a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in Virginia in 2006 similar to ones in Maryland, PA, NJ, etc. It would require that 15% of the state's electricity come from renewable resources by the year 2015. Their materials say
The RPS would give preference to zero-emission resources (resources that emit no pollutants) such as wind power, solar, geothermal power, ocean energy and others.
Then with a little help from Mike with the projector, they showed a short film called "We are All Smith Islanders." Mike Tidwell, the founder and executive director of CCAN (they call it sea-can), believes that it is the first documentary in the world showing the local effects of global warming.

For its goal of getting people to care about global warming and climate change, the film is very effective. I'm not saying that their anecdotal evidence convinces me that the "disappearance" of land from islands in the Chesapeake Bay is a direct result of global warming and that it proves their global models are accurate (as Joe astutely put it, "They don't believe our models of how a reactor behaves but they expect me to believe that their models of the entire earth are correct?") but it is an interesting film. Information about the health effects of pollution were also included. In the film, one expert said that we must reduce the worldwide use of coal, oil, and natural gas by as much as 80%.

Much of the film, and the ensuing presentations, touted wind as the energy of choice. They quoted American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) numbers that said building wind farms is cost-effective. A couple of times, the issue of bird and bat kills came up. I found one point they made rather interesting. They said that if 50% of US electricity was generated by wind the number of birds killed from the turbines would still be less than those killed by household cats...and global warming will kill even more birds than windmills anyway. Imagine if the nuclear industry tried to employ a similar argument.

Anyway, after the film, each member of the panel spoke for a few minutes. The first was Reverend Miles of the Unitarian church that hosted the event. She talked about the religious and moral reasons to fight global warming and the various interfaith efforts that are underway. The General Assembly for the UU has made the threat of global warming their "study action" for 2004-2006.

Towell McBride from Highland County, Virginia spoke next. His father is the fellow in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article that is trying to build a 38 turbine wind farm in western Virginia.

Then Dudley Rochester from the American Lung Association gave a presentation on the health effects of air pollution, particularly pollution from power plants. Some of his numbers:

Annual mortality from Power plant pollution nationwide: 11 per 100,000
From tobacco: 153 per 100,000
From all air pollution: 60 per 100,000
From alcohol, guns, and cars: 55 per 100,000

The last panel speaker was Mike Tidwell. After reviewing a bit of the effects of global warming and encouraging people to make this their number one priority as activists, he spent a lot of time talking about wind power. Though I think his view of how much wind can contribute near-term is wildly optimistic, most of what he said was well presented. But then in the middle, he inserted a quick thought about solar and wind being the methods of choice because they don't pose the dangers of nuclear.

The floor was opened for questions and comments. Steve Brown, a Presbyterian minister, spoke saying that the global warming is an ethical and moral issue and that he is a part of the ecumenical Interfaith Power and Light organization.

Then a member from the People’s Alliance for Clean Energy (PACE), the local antinuclear group, was called on and she said that she supports CCAN's initiatives but she would like to see more specifics at future meetings. She also asked for support for PACE efforts to stop the construction of new nuclear power plants.

I was next and said that I agreed with the previous speaker in wanting more specifics of how they plan to reduce emissions. In particular, the numbers didn't add up for me. I said that the film advocated an 80% reduction in the use of coal, oil, and natural gas. That number is in line with claims from some leading environmentalists that say drastic reductions must be made immediately (in the next 20-50 years) to prevent the earth from reaching the "point of no return." I went on to say that while I support the development of wind and solar, of the 27% of US electricity that comes from emission-free sources today, less than 2% comes from those sources. Furthermore, the AWEA itself says that under the best circumstances, wind energy could provide only 6% of US electricity by the year 2020. So, if the need is urgent, how can we ignore nuclear which currently provides 73% of the nation's emission-free electricity? What did the panel see as the ideal energy mix for, say, 2020 or 2030 and could they also specifically address the mix for baseload power?

Mike Tidwell's response boiled down to:

1. He didn't agree with the AWEA number I gave and said that with conservation and an aggressive campaign, wind energy could provide much more than 6% of the nation's electricity by 2020. I didn't get a chance to follow-up on this point but one of the other experts said earlier that "theoretically" wind could provide 20% of US electricity.

2. They don't advocate nuclear power because it is not emission-free when one considers all the manufacturing and mining. I tried to say that ALL energy sources emit pollutants during some stage of their life cycle but I was cutoff.

3. He went on to define "renewable" (though he actually used the UN definition for "sustainable") as energy produced in a way which doesn't impede future generations from meeting their needs, and that the issue of waste that is toxic for hundreds of thousands of years makes nuclear non-renewable (or sustainable).

I wanted to respond but Tidwell told me I must be quick. I pointed out that ALL energy technologies have pros and cons and that is why we need a balanced mix, that manufacturing and mining for solar and wind power also produce pollution, and that solar power produces toxic waste that NEVER decays. He responded that yes, there is toxic waste from solar power, but "anything is better than coal." Exactly.

I stayed quiet for the rest of the discussion. One woman said she was a writer and asked about the public opposition to the windmill projects. Mike Tidwell responded at length and his words can be summarized, "Fighting global warming is more important than the inconvenience of a small minority of people who don't like the view from their second homes in the mountains." Again, imagine if the nuclear industry used similar arguments about the impacts to communities.

There were a few other questions that didn't cover new ground. The last question that was taken was from a woman from Highland County. After Tidwell's and McBride's comments I felt sorry for her. She was against the windmill project in her area for a variety of reasons.

At that point the organizers said they would have to end the meeting but that the panel and representatives from CCAN would stay to answer questions. They handed out stamped envelopes with paper, talking points, pens, and addresses for state legislators and encouraged everyone to write and send a letter before they left that night.

The discussions we had after the meeting were quite enlightening. We spoke to several people, including some from CCAN and one director of an environmental company that promotes wind power. I told one person that I surmised that his organization could not publicly support nuclear without losing some of its core constituencies but that I found it a bit hypocritical that life-cycle emissions and waste were cited as reasons that nuclear is disparaged while similar issues with solar and wind are dismissed. I said I wasn't against wind and solar but I was disturbed by the negative comments on nuclear. He said he personally is not against nuclear power as a means to address climate change and he took some of the materials I brought.

I don’t want to get any of the individuals in trouble with their organizations so I won’t post names but similar conversations made it clear that there are several local leaders of environmentalist groups not personally opposed to nuclear power as a means to reduce emissions. Politically, however, they could not publicly promote nuclear because they would lose a significant portion of supporters like PACE. One person that had earlier denounced nuclear even said privately, “I’m really not opposed to nuclear as long as it doesn’t interfere with renewables.”

With all of these people we reiterated that NA-YGN is not against the development of solar and wind and other renewables, but that we support a balanced energy mix that includes those AND nuclear. I also said that I personally couldn't support their proposed legislation as it is currently written. However, if it were written in a way so as not to exclude nuclear as part of the solution to address climate change, I may be able to support it and perhaps also my NA-YGN colleagues. More than one person was interested in further discussion on the issue and took our contact information.

By then it was very late and I was trying to shoo Mike out the door, but he was busy talking to two more people about the benefits of nuclear energy and debunking some of the myths. The young man looked vaguely familiar and later he said he had been at the NRC hearing in Louisa last February. We talked a bit about security, waste, radiation effects etc. The woman was really surprised by some of the facts we cited and I believe she is a little more open to considering nuclear power now. The fellow was listening but he obviously isn't convinced, particularly on the waste and security issues. On the way out, Mike asked him if we had changed his mind at all. He said, "No" and Mike said, "That's all right. At least we can talk about it" and our friend agreed.

Also on our way out, the man from Sierra Club told me "Good job."

All in all, I gained an even greater appreciation for the courage of those environmentalists like James Lovelock, Patrick Moore, and our local friend from Sierra Club for the great risks they are taking by supporting nuclear power. Ideally, everyone that believes global warming is an imminent threat would have the fortitude to vocally advocate nuclear and would try to convince those elements of their constituency that oppose it. In reality though, and as demonstrated last night, it is quite difficult, politically and personally, to take such a course. We have to work with what we've got.


Ashok V. Bankley said...

Convergence of ideas between pronukes and the granola crowd is great. As the days go by, we will all be one happy family as long as the solar and windmill toys are left with the kids. Some important but staggering statistics to dwell on. According to GE, from 1990 to 2020:

The number of registered automobiles will increase from 560 million to 940 million.

Oil consumption will increase from 24 billion barrels to 38 billion barrels.

Natural gas consumption will increase from 70 trillion cu. ft. to 210 trillion cu. ft.

Soft drink consumption will increase from 364 million barrels to 765 million barrels.

Municipal waste generation will increase from 420 million tons to 860 million tons.

1978 Ralph Nader quote:

"Everything will be solar in 30 years."

Matthew Bohun said...

A church was an apt setting for this meeting, given the religious devotion with which many of the anti-nuclear environmentalists present hold onto their views, despite the scientific evidence that nuclear electricity is one of the most environmentally benign forms of industrial activity currently undertaken. Not only are the operators of nuclear plants responsible for isolating their waste products until the government takes custody of them, they are required to establish decommissioning funds to ensure that money is available to remove the plant, even if the owner is bankrupt at the time of decommissioning. I know of no other industrial activity that has such requirements placed on it.

All industrial activity has environmental consequences, the trick is to pick the one that is the least worst. For my money, for electricity generation that would be nuclear. I believe that there should be a mix and that investment should be made in renewables R & D because they may be a more benign solution in the future. My constant worry with conservation is that if people save electricity using better appliances, they have more to spend on new ones - like bigger AC units.

Norris McDonald said...

Mike Tidwell does a weekly radio show in Washington, DC. He had me on to talk about nuclear power in May.