I’ll hazard an easy guess. Most people concerned about the environment and the planet’s species accept as a given that increasing carbon dioxide emissions will cause the earth to warm. Moreover, they acknowledge that the bulk of those emissions are the result of human activity.
Pretty safe conjecture, right?
Moreover, these same individuals support in a broad sense efforts to curtail greenhouse gases. They advocate energy efficiency; renewable, rather than fossil-fuel, resources; and strategies to curb tailpipe emissions.
Now comes the more complicated part. Many of these same people realize their environmental sentiments via specific, narrow agendas.
For example, the Snohomish County PUD recently received a long-term renewal of its license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the Jackson hydroelectric project. That process lasted a full decade. Yep. Ten years. The utility spent millions of dollars to study, study, and study some more. The data collection resulted in thousands of pages of documents. Yesterday the Board of Commissioners recognized the internal PUD team that worked, worked, and worked some more to achieve a successful conclusion.
In this lengthy process PUD staff met with, listened to, and incorporated the views and opinions of 28 stakeholders, including the Tribes. The utility reached settlements with all of them in furtherance of the re-licensing process.
Among the stakeholders were individuals and groups concerned about: hydro projects in general; whitewater rafting and canoeing; fish and wildlife preservation; and outdoor recreation. I have not exhausted the list.
Again, I think it safe to assume that all of the stakeholders appreciate the science and implications of global warming. So does the PUD board. Which is one reason that we’re busy developing renewable resources in our own service territory, from tidal power and geothermal to small hydro and solar. Conceptually, the stakeholders and most of the utility’s customers support the PUD’s resource strategies.
Yet, with respect to individual projects, the organizational stilettos come a-poking. In a variety of ways, the PUD is told that it shouldn’t build the low-impact hydro here, or it shouldn’t disturb potential nesting habitat here, or it shouldn’t locate a tidal-power turbine there.
I hasten to add that I do not denigrate the concerns, which if not scientifically grounded are nevertheless sincere. The PUD is busy constraining its ecological footprint as it conserves electricity and develops or buys the output from non-carbon generating facilities. We get it. I, for one, would hope that the stilettos would step back from their myriad micro-causes to gain a broader understanding how the utility should behave in the face of climate change.
Here’s a particular example, and it involves the PUD’s efforts to explore and perhaps develop tidal power in Admiralty Inlet. The utility has invested a lot of ratepayer dollars and received significant grants from the federal government. The Department of Energy strongly supports the tidal project; the PUD is at the forefront of this pioneering technology, which holds substantial promise to meet growing electricity demand. After all, there’s lots of water along the west side of the utility’s service territory, which includes Camano Island. And most of the planet is covered with water that rises and falls in predictable patterns.
The PUD is working closely with the University of Washington to study the project site, paying close attention to the tides, of course, but also marine animals and their movements. We are in the design phases of an initial pilot project. Provided we receive a preliminary license, we’ll place two specially designed turbines on the floor of the inlet. Each will be equipped with sophisticated monitoring devices, including stereo cameras. The PUD, UW, and the various governmental agencies want to find out if tidal power is feasible with respect to costs and the environment.
I emphasize that we’re presently preparing for a small-scale pilot project. Even if all goes well, the utility wouldn’t begin commercial operation for several years. That would entail several more turbines on the bed of Puget Sound.
However, the utility finds itself stymied by a staff member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, specifically its National Marine Fisheries Service. Keep in mind that the overarching purpose of the pilot project is to collect data. But here’s the problem: the staffer wants the utility to immediately shut down the two turbines should an orca whale appear in the vicinity. To the PUD and its several project partners, this is unacceptable. Besides, it’s counterproductive.
How will marine species interact with the turbines? That’s one thing the PUD wants to find out. While we seriously doubt that the turbines pose any risk to orcas and other marine animals, we really won’t know for sure until we conduct our studies. But we can’t conduct our studies if we have to abruptly stop the turbines in the presence of orcas or other endangered species. Besides, stopping and starting the turbines would probably damage them.
I will assume that the NMFS employee genuinely cares about orca survival. I will also presume that the staffer understands and appreciates that there are many actual environmental assaults that are already adversely impacting the survivability of this and other marine species.
As it happens, there is an organization dedicated to preserving the Puget Sound habitat. It’s called the Puget Sound Partnership. Here’s a quote from its website:
Gerry O’Keefe, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Partnership said, “Ecology’s latest assessment highlights that if we want to protect vital elements of Puget Sound such as our orcas and salmon, we must prevent and remove toxic pollution…”
The most recent evaluation of Puget Sound, which you can download here, addresses orca populations and their threats.
These animals continue to face threats to their health from a number of stresses including PBTs and other contaminants and declines in prey. The whales are also at risk from major oil spills and from increased noise from whale-watching boats and other vessels.
As of 2009 Puget Sound was home to 85 orca whales, up a bit from the 1976 low of 71, but down from its highest level of 98 in 1988. The report tells us that before the “pre-European settlement” there were between 150 and 250 whales.
If were to array all of the environmental assaults on orca populations by most harmful to near-zero, my guess is that chemical pollutants, ocean acidification, and declining food supplies would be at or near the top. At the very bottom would be “engagement with turbines.”
The NMFS staffer may imagine giant Cuisinarts slicing and dicing orca whales. So what would the actual turbine look like? (from Open Hydro’s website)
Open Hydro, an Irish company with several installations under its belt, is designing the two pilot-project turbines. Each will have a diameter of six meters (19.7 feet). On its website the company asserts that this design will allow marine animals to either pass through the hole in the middle or otherwise avoid injurious contact. The slatted rotor is the only moving part, and it rotates very slowly—less than 12 revolutions per minute, or one revolution every five seconds. Contrast this to a long-play phonograph record at 33 1/3 RPM, or a ship’s propeller at between 70 and 120 RPM, or a food processor at 16,000 RPM. Besides there are no exposed blades on the Open Hydro turbine as there are on propellers.
I’ll conclude this post by suggesting an alternative approach to environmental considerations. I’ll do so in a chronological list comprising an overall process.
- Identify the problem (e.g., dwindling orca whale populations)
- Locate that problem amongst others according to relative significance (e.g., an impending bubonic plague vs. a typical flu season)
- Investigate the probable causes (e.g., water pollution, acidification)
- Prioritize the causes from most to least harmful
- Evaluate the costs and benefits of eliminating or mitigating the causes
- Focus resources (including stiletto intentions) on achieving the biggest bang for the buck
We should understand that some problems pose such significant risks that the costs to remove them, however high, must be borne to ensure species survival. Since humans are both writing and reading this post, I’ll put homo sapiens at the top. (Selfish, perhaps. Though I have no problem with orcas blogging about their own interests.)
I am astonished, then, that our species will spend an inordinate amount of money to preserve NW salmon populations (billions of dollars over the past several years) but little, if any, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that truly threaten the planet’s biosphere and the human species that inhabit it. Would the NOAA staffer prefer a coal plant over underwater turbines? Would you?