Oops! “Renewable Energy” Dilemma

I stand corrected: hydro-electric energy is a renewable form of energy by definition. My bias has to do with the expense to maintain dams and deal with their environmental impacts, which are much greater now than initially anticipated. When dams need to be dismantled, there is a dilemma about who gets stuck paying for removal.

For example, between 1920 and 1956, in the Klamath river drainage, 22 dams were dismantled at a total cost of $3,000. Today, the removal of 4 dams in that same river- for jobs, security, safety, legal compliance and growth- will cost upwards of $200 million, according to James Workman in Issues in Science and Technology, Fall, 2007.

The long range problem of protecting our water supply for generations to come is my main concern and the reason I cast a wary eye on the construction of new dams. Here are some of the unanticipated environmental impacts, particularly of large dams:

Dams challenge diversity in the life of plants and animals a river has evolved for. Sediments back up behind a dam instead of free flowing through the river and providing habitat for plants, fish and insects.

Dams hold back debris such as leaves, branches and remains of dead animals which normally provide food and hiding places for animals. Dams disrupt temperature controls. Free flowing river temps are homogenous. The water behind a dam becomes warmer on the top layer, and much colder at the base where it is released downstream, upsetting the normal life cycle of aquatic insects.

If the dam is built without fish ladders, and even with fish ladders, depending on dam size, fish have problems with water above the dam and getting back out to sea after they spawn. Many die while attempting to swim out over the dam. Large amounts of water flushed downriver to provide electricity at peak hours during the day also flush out spawnings. Dams wrecked fisheries on the Columbia River. Fred Pearce, in When the Rivers Run Dry, notes that the fish would have been worth more than the electricity generated by the dams.

The effect of people gradually settling around dams lowers the water table and eventually causes a need for more water and more dams. The effect of pesticides and salt that wash into rivers and never reach the ocean add to concerns. Pearce details the demise of dams worldwide, not just in the US.

Closer to home, I continue to be concerned about the extensive dams (210) that HydroQuebec has placed in the James Bay area despite protests from Canadian citizens and the violation of treaties with aboriginal people. I cannot in good conscience support their mission.

We groaned when we learned that W. Edwards Deming, the American Quality-Control expert, was rejected by the American auto industry but welcomed in Japan, which became the leader in the industry due to his insightful guidance.

Today, Jeremy Rifkin, the American Economist, now works with the European Union to develop whole municipalities based on sustainable, affordable, renewable energy. His new book, The Third Industrial Revolution, is an inspiration. Hopefully, we will not simply wait for the EU to lead the way before hopping on the bandwagon for a brighter, more sustainable future. Europe is also on top of the genetically modified organism threat. They have already approved food labeling and people are not buying GMO labeled foods.

That brighter future depends on our readiness to look at the big picture and the long range effect our choices will have on our children, grandchildren and beyond.

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2 Responses to “Oops! “Renewable Energy” Dilemma”

  1. Doug Cole Says:

    Hi Elizabeth. I live on the Klamath River (see http://www.marblemountainranch.com) and am surrounded by the controversy of Klamath River dam removal while also depending on my own small hydroplant for our electricity. Large dams clearly have negative impacts, but they also serve a purpose: compounding water for low water events, flood control, renewable energy, to name a few points I am sure you already are aware of. I feel frustrated because I see no societal infrastructure that does not have some measurable costs, unwanted side effects and a host of interest groups with pro-bono attorneys to sue for their causes. Solar, Wind, Fossil Fuels, Nuclear Power – they all have a cost and negative side effects to counter the gains. We are currently entering into a drought pattern year here, while simultaneously arguing for removal of the upstream dams that might provide some measure of water release if we continue to move into another 10 year drought, as was the case in the 1980s. I don’t feel it possible to be good stewards of the land, without calculated effects on the land we are stewards over. Doug

  2. elizabethterp Says:

    Thanks for your response, Doug. Clearly, once large dams are in place, they totally impact the community in both positive and negative ways, which result in long term problems which are costly to resolve.
    In your case, an established tourist recreation spot is threatened. In Quebec, construction of dams has jeopardized indigenous livelihood and backcountry tourism as well as environmental diversity. Dams relocate existing people/business and cause development below the dam which then depends on the dam after it has exhausted the environment. There are no easy answers. In light of the above, I do not support the construction of new large dams. Elizabeth

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