Climate Matters: No free lunch for energy production


All methods of producing and distributing energy have costs, or downsides. We need to be clear-eyed about what these are, and to incorporate costs that are hard to quantify in dollar terms into our public discourse about our energy future. No free lunch, and all that.

Here are some of the kinds of costs I mean — and this is not a comprehensive list.

  • Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and in internal combustion engines releases greenhouse gases, leading to global climate change, and also causes harmful air pollution due to particulates, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides.
  • Operating hydroelectric energy systems causes flooding of forests and wetlands, and when we buy hydroelectric power from Québec we own part of the damage caused by dams and reservoirs.
  • When we buy such power, we also own part of the resulting damage to First Nations communities and cultures.
  • Operating commercial-size wind farms may damage fisheries or bird life, cause noise pollution, damage sensitive habitats, and threaten the tourist industry because of damage to view sheds.
  • Extraction and transport of fossil fuels releases methane (a potent greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere, poses risks of oil spills, may leave ugly scars on the landscape, and harms wildlife.
  • High-tension electric transmission lines may damage important view sheds, and pose some danger to wildlife.
  • Tidal electricity generation has not lived up to its technical promise so far, but if widely implemented would carry the risk of damage to fisheries and marine life and to coastal view sheds.
  • Electric heat pumps and air conditioning systems have used refrigerants that are themselves significant greenhouse gases; replacements with lower global warming potential are being phased in.
  • Mining, refining and transporting the materials needed to build photovoltaic solar panels or wind turbines, and manufacturing the equipment, carries a risk of environmental damage, costs some energy, and may make us party to unfair labor practices or worse.
  • Similarly, eventual disposal of solar panels when they have worn out could be problematic.
  • Like wind farms, large solar farms could threaten important view sheds, and their construction and maintenance may leave scars on the landscape.
  • Nuclear power plants in place today carry a risk of very rare but catastrophic breakdowns, and the problem of very long-term management of toxic nuclear waste has not been fully solved.
  • Burning wood to heat buildings is likely to increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the short run, and making such burning carbon neutral in the longer run requires forest management practices that have not yet been universally implemented.
  • Most of the costs mentioned are likely to be unevenly distributed among population groups, and marginalized populations have historically borne the brunt of these costs.

To my knowledge every way of replacing the burning of fossil fuels — which I take as an absolute imperative — has run into citizen or political opposition on one ground or another, often from environmentalists or other public-spirited people. This includes solar, wind, tidal, nuclear, biomass and hydroelectric. The objections generally are reality-based and need to be taken seriously.

There is no obvious environmental cost to conservation and efficiency in use of energy. But achieving substantial reductions in energy use through conservation and efficiency usually costs money, at least in the short run. Financing such investments and making them equitable across all income sectors is a continuing challenge.

In any case we can never get to zero greenhouse gas emissions from conservation and efficiency of fossil fuels alone — we also have to switch to electricity and make our electricity less carbon-intensive. The mantra is “electrify everything, decarbonize the electricity” — we need to do both to achieve real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

I believe it is disingenuous to focus on the costs or harms of one method of meeting energy needs, without comparing them to the costs or harms of alternatives. Relying on hydroelectric power as we do in Vermont makes us party to harming indigenous peoples in Québec and environmental damage from dam building. And building wind farms along our ridgelines has drawn fierce opposition. And expanding the natural gas service area is building problematic fossil fuel infrastructure. And weatherizing tens of thousands of homes is expensive. But we need to get beyond the objections to the various alternatives.

Arguing that “my favorite solution has no costs or harms, while yours has unacceptable costs” probably does not advance our discussion. We need to identify an actual plan to stop burning fossil fuel and to eliminate greenhouse gas releases from energy production, while minimizing collateral damage.

To stop it, not reduce it by 10% or 15% over 10 years. Scale is really important. Figuring out how to make enough energy for our needs and to minimize harms and costs while eliminating the burning of fossil fuels and release of methane requires committed people of good will to have really difficult conversations with each other, as well as with the representatives of the climate polluters.

We don’t, to my knowledge, have really good and widely accepted methods of comparing these diverse costs and harms to each other, and we need them.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but we might be able to make the cost of lunch visible and to minimize it.


Richard Hopkins is a retired epidemiologist and current climate data expert with the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County.

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