Energy Pros and Cons

Energy is the number one environmental problem today. But we don’t want to minimize our use of energy — abundant energy makes possible civilization, especially our kind of high-technology civilization. So the question is: how can we maintain abundant sources of energy without ruining our environment? Here is some information that can help.
This post is under construction.

Pros and Cons of Some Energy Sources

Source Provides Upside Downside
Coal Nearly 60% of electricity and 25% of total energy in the United States today; probably will not increase in % because of environmental effects World’s most abundant fossil fuel; Many coal-fired plants are inplace; 250 years worth of fuel. World’s most abundant fossil fuel; most polluting; along with nuclear the most dangerous; coal mining is a major environmental and human health problem.
Today: 1/6 of the world’s electricity. In the future: Known conventional nuclear reactor fuel will run out in about a century. Doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. Most dangerous to people and environment; waste disposal an unsolved problem; power plants expensive and slow to build; expensive to run, and have very limited lifetimes.
Solar More than the world uses or will ever use. Nonpolluting and renewable; works now. Needs improved grid and storage.
Wind Texas and the Dakotas alone can provide all the electricity needed in the United States. Nonpolluting and renewable; works now. Needs improved electrical grid for distribution and new storage methods; some birds are killed flying into windmill blades; NIMBY (not in my backyard) problem: view and sound of windmills bothers some people.

Pros and Cons of Energy Sources: More Information

Source Dangers Who Gains Who Loses
Coal Global warming; acid rain; release of toxic metals and compounds harmful to human health, other life forms, and ecosystems, such as mercury, sulfur oxides. Big Power and Coal Corporations. Everyone and every ecosystem exposed to coal burning pollutants; global climate change; miners’ health; land strip-mined.
Wastes and spills remain very toxic for 10,000 years. Previous investors in nuclear power. People who live near and own property near the power plants; people subjected to radioactive wastes.
Solar None. Everybody. Investors in conventional power.
Wind Difficult to brake the blades; in very high winds, the machine can self-destruct. All users of electricity. Those who dislike living near windmill installations.

Copyright © 2010 Daniel B. Botkin
From my book Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence, FT Press

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A 1990s Forecast of a Possible Effect of Global Warming on an Endangered Species

The underlying reason that we are having trouble dealing with global warming is that we are not used to dealing with environmental change. This is true both in the history of beliefs and ideas in Western Civilization and in modern environmental sciences, which are formulated primarily in terms of steady-state conditions and theory. In Western Civilization the idea is known as the Great Balance of Nature   that nature undisturbed by people achieves a permancy of form and structure which is best of itself, for us, and for all life. (I discuss this in my book, Discordant Harmonies, and pursue its many implications in another book, No Man’s Garden.)

Case in point: In 1991, I and several colleagues published a forecast about how global warming would effect the Kirtland’s warbler, an endangered species that nests only in Michigan. The state of Michigan had set aside 38,000 acres of jack pine forest, the only kind of forest in which this bird nested, and managed these for the warbler. 

The warbler nests only in young jack pine woodlands, and jack pine only comes in after a fire. It can’t grow in the shade of taller trees, so if there are no fires, jack pine disappears. Periodic fires set intentionally in the Kirtland’s warbler’s forest were benefiting the bird. This raised the question: if the climate warms and jack pine can no longer grow in the part of Michigan where the warbler nests, what will happen to the bird’s habitat? (For reasons not completely understood, the warbler only nests in a specific kind of sandy soil found only in southern Michigan, so the bird is unlikely to migrate north.)

The computer model of forest growth that I developed with colleagues at IBM Thomas J. Watson Laboratory (available to download at forecast that by 2015 jack pine would decline significantly and the warbler would begin to get into trouble.
Oddly, although there is so much written and said about global warming, and although this 1991 prediction got the attention of newspapers around the world, no one has tried to see if the forecast is turning out ot be valid. Here’s an opportunity to test at least one global warming forecast. Why is nobody taking advantage of this test? (Stay tuned.)

Forecast Jack pine forest under present climate and 40 years in the future

Jack pine forest now Jack pine forest - 40 years in the future

These forecasts are based on the use of the JABOWA forest model (see and a standard climate model.

Copyright © 2007 Daniel B. Botkin

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Mining Roads and First Nation Cultures

The government of British Columbia, Canada, approved a request by the Redfern Corporation to build a 100 mile long mining road through the traditional land of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation. But they approved this road without asking the permission of hte First Nation.  If I understand things correctly, they didn’t even ask the First Nation.  And The land lies in northern British Columbia and is said to be one of the largest remaining wild areas of northern forests and tundra left in North America.  A mining road like this could have big effects on the wildlife, on the scenery, and most important on the culture and way of life of the Tlinglits. 

The First Nation asked me write a report about the possible environmental effects of the mining road, and I did this in the early fall of 2004, getting a small group of scientists and engineers together who had experience and knowledge about wilderness ecosystems, wildlife conservation, and road-building. Directing this kind of meeting of a small group of scientists and technical experts is something I have done repeatedly in my career, and I agreed to take on the work. [Read more...]

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The Deer Hunt in Connecticut

Late in 2003, Friends of Animals and The Audubon Society were at odds over deer. Too many deer is a national problem—- what to do about them? Who can be against an individual deer, a bambi, grazing in a pasture, looking up with big eyes? And who can be against the conservation of an entire endangered species of a bird? Could it be that the Audubon Society does not like bambi? Could it be that Friends of Animals could want to cause the extinction a species? Seems impossible, but it appears to be at the heart of the controversy reported in Wednesday’s New York Times where Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals in Darien, Connecticut, publicly opposed a deer hunt on Audubon Greenwich land, a hunt whose intention is to protect the habitat of endangered species of birds. How can two organizations, both appearing to be of good will, be on opposite sides of an issue about the health of nature and its wildlife? [Read more...]

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Energy and Civilization

An early experiment with solar energy by Southern California EdisonNow that it is generally accepted that global warming is happening and is at least in part the result of burning fossil fuels, the question is: what do we do about it? One answer is energy sacrifice — that we try to use as little energy as possible, each of us, everywhere, forever. In my view, that’s unrealistic — consider how unsuccessful we are at depriving ourselves, even for a little while, of anything we greatly want or need. But more important, it’s not a good idea for human societies, civilization, or humanity.

Why? The answer lies in a story about whales, whaling, and people, a long time ago. Put yourself back to about 500 A.D. or a few centuries later, and think of yourself as part of a small group of Eskimo struggling northeastward near the Bering Strait and crossing into what is now Alaska. Life for you and your ancestors has been a struggle — living at the margin, barely enough food, hard to keep warm, often without enough energy left over to do much more than think about the next meal. This was the life of most of the Canadian Eskimo at that time, a struggle for existence. [Read more...]

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