Jack and the industrial stalk…
Third essay in the United Divides series © by Michael D’Amico
Illustrations by Pinky Twolegs
Change is constant, but transition, many resist. The thought, let alone the act, necessary to revolutionize seems to hold many back. To me change is the keystone to the current narrative of social transformation.
I’ve hit the point in my transformation where I can no longer look at attractive images of solar arrays covering vast tracts of land, or, upon seeing a cluster of wind turbines nestled in a field of blooming flowers, say: ‘Ahhhh, yes, there’s the answer to our climate and extinction crises’. Now when a solar array pic appears all I see is a bulldozer blade pushing with the plant life it has just uprooted a pregnant desert tortoise running for her life in front; and below the landward wind turbines I see dead bats and birds decomposing under those pretty flowers. Please allow me to explain.
My openness to change with electrical energy began in the early 1970s as an apprentice electrician when I saw the nastiness of coal fired power plants and checked them off. By the late 70s I’d seen the Glen Canyon dam after an extended hike along the Escalante River and added hydro to my checklist. I held out hope for nuclear, but after learning of the cultural and ecological devastation uranium mines cause, the water intake pipes impinging marine life, and the spent fuel rods with no where to go, I abandoned nuclear in the early 90s. Here my hopes shifted to industrial solar and wind to power the world. I wasn’t yet thinking about the scale of the cumulative footprints of supposed renewables.
As late as 2005 I still felt industrial scale renewable power plants held the answers. That is when a public notice appeared proposing the Long Island Offshore Wind Project off the coast at Jones Beach, New York. The matter came to represent my turning point on any more forms of industrialization in any arena.
By this point in my evolution I’d become fairly savvy in migratory and marine conservation issues and how the administrative processes in the United States of America worked. So when the PN for the LIOWP arrived in 2005 I went to work and submitted about 10 pages of questions and my justification for asking them and was instantly branded a NIMBY. Happens. Was I surprised? No. The surprise for me came when I began researching the cumulative impacts and saw these offshore power plants being proposed from Maine to Florida.
The LIOWP was shelved in 2007 but the narrative to industrialize the marine world continued on, and as I see now this offshore chorus has grown larger and connected to its landward cousin. In the incubators now are proposals to pretty much ring the border of the USA’s lower 48 with these things. One narrative in fact is suggesting that solar and wind industrial plants being built from Texas to California at the USA’s border with Mexico, complete with reverse osmosis desalination plants anchoring both ends, could also serve as our new border wall. Now, scratch the surface a little deeper for other industrial renewable proposals and do the infrastructure math. Maine to Florida, Florida to California, California to Washington, and Washington to Maine.
I still wonder if proponents of these ‘renewable’ industrial power plants first ask the hard questions and are satisfied with the answers before promoting them. Examples of such questions are what materials go into making them?; where do the materials come from?; how are they manufactured and delivered?; where will the landward side of the assembly and launching site be placed for the offshore plants?; how will these materials and the workers be transported to sea?; how are the towers anchored: what impacts will these anchored towers have on the wildlife in the benthic and water column communities; how were the impacts of proposed turbine blades on aerial species assessed, e.g. by binoculars via periodic boat trips in the target areas or by stationary barges with radar monitoring 24/7 for 365 days and over how long a period?; how will the energy produced get to land and where will it tie in to the grid: and so on.
To pick on one aspect of panels or turbines, do proponents ask questions regarding copper? How much copper is needed to make up one industrial scale solar panel or wind turbine? Has the copper to make it been recycled or has it come from a mine? Where is it eventually refined before placement in the turbine? Who and what are negatively impacted by the copper needed for this turbine? From extraction to final placement how much water was needed in the overall process?
At this moment I’m on an extended visit in the northern region of the Sonoran Desert. Here there are two National Forests under assault by copper mining types. One is culturally and religiously significant to the Tohono O’odahm Nation and has recently been visited by a jaguar; and the other is significant to the San Carlos Apache Nation and is home to a diverse assemblage of flora and fauna.
Meanwhile, back at the landfill in my mind’s eye, sitting adjacent to an abandoned smelter are tons of discarded metals about to be capped so an industrial array of newly minted solar panels and wind turbines can be built over it, while lands between it and the switching station get cleared to make way for the new power lines to connect the two. All of this complete with smiling officials and celebrities wearing hardhats and holding up chrome plated shovels for the cameras. Behind them a banner reads: Renewables and Smart Grid = Progress. Lost in the din of this human applause is the roar of the jaguar out there on the edge of extinction in the northern Sonoran Desert.