If Oregon and the nation are to embrace a new energy future, policy makers and consumers will find it impossible to avoid a stubborn truth: Everything we do to create alternative energy sources for households, businesses and transportation will come with large consequences and costs.
Recent events occurring locally and around the Northwest provide a glimpse of the tradeoffs that the state and nation will face as they attempt to power their future with renewable energy.
Here are a few examples:
• A story in today's Portland Tribune highlights the fact that during the recent heat wave, wind turbines across the Pacific Northwest were idled as breezes stopped blowing. This failure in turn forced PGE and other utilities to rely on power sources from other states.
• Residents of Oregon City and West Linn are complaining about an Oregon Department of Transportation plan to place up to 17,000 solar panels on a south-facing hillside above Interstate 205. The panels, residents say, will degrade their views and require removal of too many trees.
• Meanwhile, other Oregonians have begun to object to plans for expansion of wind farms, which they say create visual pollution in rural areas. And citizens also are opposing plans to build new transmission lines to carry power from wind farms - or from traditional power plants - from Eastern Oregon to the Willamette Valley's more populated areas.
• At the same time, Oregonians concerned about safety and the environment have fiercely fought plans to locate a liquefied natural gas terminal along the Columbia River near St. Helens. They also oppose construction of an LNG line through the northwestern part of the state. The opposition comes even though this energy is arguably cheaper for consumers and better for the atmosphere than coal, which is used to generate part of the region's electricity.
• Against these emerging conflicts, an old battle is rearing its head. Federal Judge James Redden has given the Obama administration a new deadline to explain its plans to restore Columbia River salmon runs. And Redden has warned that the possibility of breaching four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River remains on the table - at a time when power generated and water stored by those dams is most needed to offset use of fossil fuels, provide for efficient river transportation and supply water for agriculture.
Arguments over money, aesthetics
What these loosely related news items demonstrate is how difficult it will be for the Northwest - or any region - to move forward into the promised land of renewable energy. When discussed in generalities, just about everyone agrees with the idea of reducing greenhouse gases, encouraging alternative energy and lowering dependence on finite fossil fuels. But when specifics emerge, the generalized support can disintegrate into arguments over aesthetics, money and whether such changes should be mandated by the government or encouraged by incentives.
An even larger discussion involves the choices this state and region must make as it considers its future need for energy. Some environmental groups make optimistic claims that the Northwest can meet its power needs with all-renewable energy sources. But others ask: At what cost to the consumer and the taxpayer?
Those arguments are still in their early stages as people begin to question things such as tax credits for solar and wind energy, or the economic impact of cap-and-trade legislation intended to slow global warming.
Even at this phase, we can see that the choices are far from easy. If people want to avoid the most devastating impacts of global warming, they also must be willing to tolerate solar panels or windmills in their line of view - and they may even have to make extraordinarily difficult choices when it comes to keeping dams that slow global warming or doing everything possible to save a treasured species of fish.