Over the past few years, solar panels have cropped up all over Athens. For instance, Village Bakery installed panels on its rooftop, in 2010 the city had an array installed in the parking lot of the Rec Center on East State Street and the local public library installed solar panels on the roof of the new expansion.
New installations such as these signal the steady growth of renewables and clean energy in the region, a growth that UpGrade Athens and the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council seeks to spur. Their various initiatives in support of clean energy include the promotion of electric vehicles, education about energy conservation and renewables and the development of local sources of renewable energy, thus far exclusively in the form of solar.
These changes that UpGrade Athens and SOPEC seek to stimulate are positive in light of the problems we may face as a result of climate change, but whether a renewable monoculture is enough to displace fossil fuels is debatable. Critics of such a system cite issues with solar and wind energy reliability, given that they only produce power when the sun shines or the wind blows. This unreliability creates the need for energy storage, not only on a daily basis, but in the long term as well.
From an engineering perspective, this issue may be surmountable, but critics also take issue with the idea of replacing nuclear, the most efficient zero carbon energy, with wind or solar, a displacement which they see as essentially spending more money and developing more land without cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions.
But advocates for nuclear energy may focus too much on its scientific and economic limits. In a letter urging the environmental community to embrace nuclear energy, four prominent climate scientists contend that regardless of any benefits related to the provision of energy, nuclear must be developed for its “societal benefits.” Nuclear energy may provide social benefits in the sense that it may curtail the negative impacts of climate change such as sea level rise, but the authors of this letter must not be aware of opposition from advocates of environmental justice.
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Nuclear energy has resulted in abuse of both black and Native American communities. In 1989, for instance, the Louisiana Energy Services proposed to build a uranium enrichment plant in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, after an exhaustive search using a purportedly objective scientific method. The population living within a one-mile radius of the proposed site was 97 percent black.
Communities nearby the site fought against the decision, and after a lengthy lawsuit, a panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board concluded that “racial bias played a role in the selection process.” Similarly, “radioactive colonialism” allows for the extraction of uranium and storage of nuclear waste on Native American lands that do not have the infrastructure to adequately handle these activities in a safe and environmentally sound fashion. These injustices have resulted in fervent opposition to nuclear energy from advocates for environmental justice.
Nuclear energy must not only surmount social opposition as a result of its dirty past, however. The aforementioned letter claims that renewables cannot scale up quickly enough to provide energy to the entire world, but nuclear only contributes 5 percent of the world’s energy compared to renewable’s 3 percent. This fact combined with its stagnation in OECD countries and renewable’s growth suggests that both social and political opposition impedes nuclear and stimulates renewables.
The proliferation of renewables, however long it may take, may be most favorable for small towns. Even if governments and environmental groups reverse their opinion on nuclear energy, they may still prefer renewable energy because of its potential to decentralize energy and create socioeconomic benefits on a local and regional scale. For small rural communities in Appalachia that need economic development, this possibility may tip the scale in the favor of a renewable monoculture.
Austin Miles is a senior studying biology. Do you support fracking in Southeast Ohio? Email him at email@example.com.