The great energy debate: Renewable vs. fossil

If you feel conflicted about energy, you’re not alone. Although renewable energy will drive the future, Coloradans must accept and plan for-not merely tolerate-continued responsible use of fossil fuels.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and other Colorado leaders asked General Electric to build one of the nation’s largest solar-panel manufacturing plants in Colorado, and GE has taken them up on their offer. In this sun-drenched state prideful of its “new energy economy,” the governor’s invitation to GE naturally finds widespread support. Yet the governor’s embrace of Colorado’s rich traditional energy resources-natural gas, coal-bed methane, and coal-as opportunities for economic growth has been criticized as an attempt to be everything to everyone. Some say fossil fuels have no place in Colorado’s energy future.

What some see as the governor’s equivocation, however, is a reflection of deep, well-founded, and unavoidable ambivalence many people feel about energy. For example, you might be an advocate for renewables, but the sleek computer on which you’re reading this likely was produced in Asia from oil-based plastic, along with metals and rare-earth elements extracted with giant machines, then shipped across the ocean on huge freighters-all thanks to fossil fuels.

And don’t get me started about all the wonderful outdoor gear on which we Coloradans depend and where it comes from. Although an economically sustainable renewable-energy world is tantalizing and will become necessary, we cannot ignore fossil fuels: they are abundant, technologically available, and economically viable.

Of course fossil fuels eventually will be depleted or beyond retrieval, and they can create environmental and health problems that in some countries are barely addressed, and that are rarely fully captured by market prices anywhere. Energy, like any other consumer product, has associated externalities. But that does not mean we should abandon fossil fuels. It means we should responsibly manage unwanted side effects.

Natural gas, widely viewed as a “bridge fuel” to replace dirtier coil and oil while large amounts of renewable energy slowly come on line, is abundant in Colorado. The natural-gas industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) to remove gas trapped in rock thousands of feet below the surface, however, is the source of heated controversy. While regulators including the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the U.S. Department of Interior have stated that fracking can be and has been for decades performed safely and responsibly, the public remains unsettled. Perhaps this is because few understand the highly technical aspects of gas production or the emphasis most companies place on health and safety. Perhaps it’s because there is no popular consensus on the effects of fracking. Only recently has the practice been widely used so close to residential areas, and nobody wants to live near industry.

But such sentiment is not limited to natural gas. Every energy source can create problems, even the “clean” ones. Wind farms can be loud, obstruct views, and kill birds. Solar projects often occupy land that could be used for agriculture or homes, and could affect endangered species. Dams can fundamentally change rivers. And miles of transmission lines essential to bringing electricity to users always run through someone’s backyard. No source is immune from conflict.

This conflict-which boils down to how to fuel our modern existence while respecting each other and the planet-is one of the most important issues humans face today. We dream a lot about fixes. Think about wafer-thin solar panels sprawled over rooftops in a brilliant sci-fi scene, electricity generators gathering energy from tides, raptor-safe wind farms whose neighbors welcome rotor whines and transmission lines, rivers energizing cities while salmon run free, and beetle-kill trees transformed into clean electricity.

We all want a pristine world. And most of us (admit it or not) are terrified of climate change. Those time-lapse videos of glaciers melting away are horrifying. Still, we love our flat-screen TVs, leave the fridge open and lights on, admire energy-saving tips but easily forget them, drive like crazy, and generally take energy for granted.

Thank fossil fuels. When you pressed your computer’s power button, you expected it to crawl to life, and it did. Because of diesel-powered coal trains. They lumber south through downtown Denver every day toward power plants that burn coal dust to boil water into steam to drive generators, using technology reminiscent of the nineteenth century to power your laptop. Good or bad? Maybe that’s not the issue. Everyone-regardless of political or environmental stripe-demands that the lights go on when the switch is flipped.

Our hunger for energy is insatiable and growing, and the tension between renewable and conventional energy sources is at a fever pitch. Colorado is in many ways at the heart of this debate, and we need to think carefully about its implications for all of us.
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