Enervating Energy Production
The topic is energy production, but the implications are much broader for the cast of characters who call Rhode Island, and New England, home. Exhibit A:
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has given final state approval to a Somerset power plant to use a new technology called coal plasma gasification.
State environmental officials say the new process is a cleaner alternative than Somerset Power LLC’s current emissions at its Riverside Avenue coal-burning plant. The technology uses high heat to convert coal to synthetic gas, which is then used as fuel.
The company says it will reduce some air pollutants by 95 percent.
But the state’s action Thursday is being criticized by some environmentalists, who say it allows the plant to continue releasing carbon dioxide for decades to come. Opponents have 21 days to file an appeal.
The Fall River Herald News reported that community activists called the decision unacceptable and said it significantly undermined the state’s policy against global warming.
To be honest, given life’s twists and turns, I haven’t followed this issue closely, and living right across the water, I’ll be as happy as anybody to see that smoke-spewing monstrosity disappear. That said, it seems to me that every activist statement against the power plant, and every news story about it, ought to include some variation of the phrase “instead we should.”
It seems almost to be a native character trait, in these parts, to indulge initial reactions. I dislike looking at those smoke stacks as I drive the local streets; the view that I’d enjoy during future dog walks would be much improved by their absence; and I hate the image of that tendril of smoke drifting toward my neighborhood.
On the other hand, if energy prices were to climb, much, based on the lower production, I might not be able to stay in the neighborhood long enough to enjoy the new scenery. In various scenarios, the economic upshot could be the loss of homes, of jobs, of health. And so, exhibit B:
The Ocean State has great potential sites for wind turbines, both offshore and on land, and it has plenty of room for wave-energy generators — less familiar but also promising given the state’s coastal geography. There are several designs, but essentially a wave-energy collector is a large buoy containing some device — a piston or pendulum or air chamber — to generate electricity from the movement of water. These could be arrayed along the state’s southern coast, for example, where they might have the added plus of reducing beach erosion. If we get to work, Governor Carcieri’s call to generate 16 percent of energy consumed in Rhode Island from renewable sources by 2020 can be met and possibly exceeded. Indeed, the governor has expressed great enthusiasm for the idea of making the state a leader in the alternative-energy field.
But as renewable-energy companies approach the state with cutting-edge wind- and wave-energy proposals, the state Office of Energy Resources is taking its time, handing over a lot of initiative to University of Rhode Island scientists to study (and study and study and . . . ?) alternative-energy projects. It wants them to come up with a statewide alternative-energy zoning plan that would take into account impacts on wildlife, commercial fishing, navigation, coastline views and the environment.
It sounds reasonable enough until one gets to the fine print. Until this study is complete, all proposals are on hold. That gives political figures cover from incoming fire from local people wanting to make sure that the views in the pristine-wilderness area known as Rhode Island are unsullied by reminders that electricity doesn’t originate in a switch in the wall.
Running the process backwards, in short, the emphasis is wholly different: study everything before agreeing to think about studying some more. Give those who oppose advances every opportunity to delay them.
When it is a matter of changing the accustomed landscape, no question must be left unanswered, even at the cost of lost opportunity. When it is a matter of improving such critical measures of life’s quality as one’s view from the car to the front door, the priorities seem more likely to be bulldoze first, ask questions later.