April 6, 2015

Overseas, Underfunded: The Environment Part 1

Hey guys, congratulations, we’ve finally done it! As of a few days ago, we have officially made Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, a tepid 63.5°F (17.5°C). This is just one more example of human resiliency. From 1901 to 1904, Captain Robert Falcon Scott led the Discovery Expedition, the first official exploration of Antarctica. When he returned, I can assure you that he reported at least one thing: “Boy, it is cold down there.” Now, just 111 years later, we can rejoice and proclaim, “We really can change the world!” You know, I think Major League Soccer is still looking for new expansion locations and this place seems to fit the bill. Heck, I don’t know why we’re looking to colonize Mars when we have an entire continent left to develop.

esperanza-base-300x300This record-high measurement was taken at Argentina’s Esperanza Base in Hope Bay on the Trinity Peninsula (location pictured to the left). Sure, this research station is located on one of the northernmost points of Antarctica, but that doesn’t mean the weather is typically warm. For instance, the daily mean temperature for Esperanza Base during the month of March is a frigid 26.4°F (-3.1°C). Bear in mind that because Antarctica is located in the southern hemisphere, March is considered a summer month. So, a temperature in the high 20s to low 30s is considered relatively warm. Evidently, there is a huge difference between 63.5°F and the normal temperatures. This and other recent events occurring on the polar ice caps just serve as reminders of the impact global climate change can incite. I’m not here to provide evidence that global warming exists because that has already been done by people far more qualified than myself. I am here to urge on change.

There’s no doubt that America is the singular world leader. Sure, China has a big economy, but their political prowess leaves much to be desired. Russia has been flexing their muscles recently, but it has yet to be seen if they can withstand economic sanctions and continue to pose a threat. Great Britain…well, let’s just say it’s not the 1700s anymore, fellas. That being the case, America needs to lead the environmental movement and reduce its carbon footprint. When many people consider the “green” movement, they think of crunchy hippies that are skipping showers, avoiding laundry, and walking to work all in the name of saving the planet. Such personal sacrifice is unnecessary and, honestly, ineffective. The best way to cut down on humanity’s environmental impact is to target the carbon emissions and resource usage of something everyone uses. If the United States managed to ease itself away from the antiquated and wasteful processes we still employ toward new and efficient ones, future generations would look back and see America as a force for positive change. However, up until now that hasn’t happened. In fact, it seems that my good friend Germany has stepped up and set a precedent. The United States would be wise to follow along.

Few things are more widely used and detrimental to the environment than electricity. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as of 2012, electricity generation is the leading contributor of greenhouse gases in America, providing 32% of all such emissions. The main reason for this is the continued reliance on fossil fuels for producing electricity. In fact, a whopping 67% of electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, including coal (39%), natural gas (27%), and petroleum (1%). Natural gas is widely considered a relatively “clean” fossil fuel, and petroleum is hardly used for electricity. Coal, however, is the real killer, producing 2,249 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. To put that in perspective, natural gas produces 1135 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour and alternative energy sources contribute exactly 0 lbs of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. Despite that, the United States receives 19% of its electricity from nuclear power and just 13% from all renewable sources (solar, hydropower, wind, biomass, etc).


Field of wind turbines along the Autobahn.

Admittedly, Germany relies on coal for about the same percentage of electricity generation as the United States. Germany has not had the most straightforward approach with coal as it recently introduced plans to construct 26 new coal plants while also committing itself to curbing emissions. One explanation could be that the Germans are more willing to install additional filters and cleaning processes that remove toxins from the emissions. The significant difference is that Germany fulfills all of its remaining electricity demands through nuclear power (17.7%) and renewable energy sources (>25%). The key to creating a successful system of alternative energy is knowing how to play off of the strengths of certain areas. For instance, a town isn’t going to plan on building a hydropower plant if no river flows nearby. Similarly, Northern Germany doesn’t heavily invest in photovoltaic (solar) energy because the weather tends to be cloudy for long periods of time. Rather, wind energy comprises a majority of renewable energy production (40%). This is evident as you drive on the Autobahn and look out upon IMG_2418thousands of acres of flat, windy countryside (picture to the right).  However, Southern Germany, particularly Bavaria, is heavily invested in solar energy, taking advantage of their slightly warmer and sunnier weather. Additionally, solar panels are often found on the roofs of residential homes (also pictured), proving that this trend exists beyond government initiatives and efforts among private companies.

Germans have had good reason to embrace the employment of renewable energy. Renewableenergyworld.com has called Germany, “the world’s first major renewable energy economy.” As of 2010, over 370,000 were employed by the renewable energy sector. A common excuse among Americans is that renewable energy will take too long to create the jobs that we need immediately. To an extent, this is true. The German people and government exercised the necessary patience and are now reaping the reward. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Germany’s flourishing renewable energy sector. Since 2004, Germany has seen the number of renewable energy jobs more than double, starting from 160,500. Germany provided the renewable industry incentive, time, and the means to grow, mature, and succeed. The United States could do the same and leave fossils fuels in the past with the prehistoric creatures from which they are made.

Readers who know me personally are well aware that, in terms of political opinion, I am far from the liberals who tend to share my environmental views. I understand that a large portion of the American people shrug off calls for energy reform as fantastical visions of treehuggers. For that reason, I find that it serves me well to appeal to doubters on the basis of national security. The United States is completely reliant on foreign countries to meet its own energy needs. Nothing better personifies this point than the 1973 OPEC Oil Embargo. To provide some background, Egypt and Syria, with the support of other Arab nations, launched a surprise attack upon Israel during Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur. This event would appropriately be dubbed the Yom Kippur War. In order to dissuade America’s continued support of Israel, the Arab nations enacted an oil embargo on the US. Infamously, gas prices skyrocketed while supply plummeted. People had to wait for hours to refuel their cars. America had been crippled, brought to its knees for 6 months by previously irrelevant third-world countries. At this point, any illusions that America controlled its own destiny were shattered. This remains true today.

Oil embargo

Drivers line up and wait for gas. Often this took hours and equally often they were forced to leave with nothing to show for it.


Although we are finding recent success in increasing dependence on native natural gas, America is still reliant on foreign oil. Cars, planes, and ships are three easy examples of things that don’t run on natural gas. Our economy and military would be rendered helpless without cars, planes, and ships. America needs to gain control of its energy sources and keep them close to the chest. Renewable resources are the answer. Solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, etc. cannot be imported or exported. Foreign powers cannot cutoff the electrical supply provided by a wind turbine with a simple embargo. Renewable energy is not just the answer to climate change, it is the key the energy independence.

If you would like to see my sources, let me know. Make sure to check out my past posts at the following link: http://voices.lafayette.edu/category/james-onorevole/

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1 Comment

  1. […] I discussed in the first part of this environmental comparison overview (found here), a reformation of electrical energy production is, at this point, overdue, and the strides made in […]


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