Measuring the Impacts
I was traveling through Harrisonburg, Virginia a couple of weeks ago and stopped for lunch with my husband at a local barbecue joint. I ordered a glass of iced tea with my meal. When the iced tea came, I saw some text on the side of it. Now, I have always been a voracious reader, and I can't tell you how many times I've sat at the breakfast table and read cereal boxes and the like, so although I just expected advertising or something, I simply had to read the text curling around the cup.
The iced tea was in a foam cup, and the text explained that paper cups produce 148% more waste by weight than foam cups. Sounds good, right? Except that the last time I checked, landfill is limited by volume, not by weight, and paper cups are thinner than foam cups. Furthermore, paper is biodegradable, and foam generally is not.
Admittedly, advances are being made in foam products, and some are biodegradable, but the cup didn't boast of being biodegradable. I can't be absolutely sure, but after touting its weight advantages, I would have to believe it would have broadcast its biodegradability as well--if it were biodegradable. But it didn't.
So what does this have to do with energy production? Too often, I have seen promoters of various energy sources treat their products the same way--picking out the positives without presenting the whole picture. Thus, we hear about how much wind or solar capacity has been built, but we aren't told that the fraction of power supplied by these sources is much smaller than the built capacity. We also hear about how solar or wind or nuclear energy produce no greenhouse gases, but we aren't always told that each of these produces some other forms of waste. We hear that natural gas or "clean coal" is cleaner than oil or regular coal and is produced domestically, but we don't hear how they compare to nuclear or solar or wind power, and we don't hear that very little of our electricity is generated from oil-fired plants.
I could go on. But this is no different from all the other things we use in our daily lives--paper versus plastic bags, genetically-modifed versus non-GM crops, electric cars versus gasoline-powered cars. And foam cups versus paper cups.
The point, as always, is that every source of energy has multiple dimensions, some very positive, some negative--and some that can potentially be overcome with further technology development. Yes, this makes it complex and problematical to compare sources. Yes, it means that there is no one perfect source that we should rely on completely.
The "right" energy solution, and the "right" solution for almost everything else we use, is likely to involve a mix of options, and is likely to create continual pressure to reduce the downsides of each of these technologies.