Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Clean" Energy and Water

So-called clean energy is seen by many as the solution to our problems. Again, we emphasize technological solutions for our problems. Cutting back on consumption is not acceptable to most Americans. We just need to find better and more efficient technologies, right?

Maybe. But they cause problems too:

In a rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a bit of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer, Solar Millennium, announced plans to build two large solar farms here that would harness the sun to generate electricity, creating hundreds of jobs.

But then things got messy. The company revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 percent of this desert valley’s available water.

Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. The public is divided, pitting some people who hope to make money selling water rights to the company against others concerned about the project’s impact on the community and the environment.

Whoops! Western history almost seems like one long never-ending water war. Big entities who control water are often painted as the bad guys in the modern west (see Worster, Rivers of Empire or Reisner, Cadillac Desert as a couple of classics of environmental history that do this). But what happens when the supposed good guys also need water.

Producing any form of energy is going to create negative environmental impacts. Maybe the water of this Nevada valley is better spent on solar energy than individual people. Maybe that's a choice we are going to have to make. But we need to do it with open eyes. Because those who control water in the West also control power and there are definitely winners and losers. Could solar energy, producing green energy for our consumption, hurt local residents in real ways? Absolutely. And before we tout green energy as the technological solution for all our problems, we need to have these conversations.