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Alternatives drown in doubt

Published on June 8, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on July 6, 2012 11:30AM


Portland General Electric, under mandate to stop burning coal by 2020, is experimenting with a biomass feedstock to fuel its electrical generating station in Boardman, Ore., and save 110 jobs.

The company is experimenting with 90 acres of giant cane -- Arundo donax. If it works, the company says it will need between 50,000 and 90,000 acres of the stuff to keep the plant fueled. Which shouldn't be much of a problem if you believe the Native Plant Society of Oregon and the Invasive Species Council. They say, and we have no reason to doubt their claim, that giant cane would be difficult if not impossible to control if it found its way to an irrigation ditch or other riparian area.

"If Arundo donax reaches the Columbia River, it will be a disaster of unimaginable proportions," Judi Sanders of the Native Plant Society of Oregon, told lawmakers recently. The groups want the Legislature to stop the experiment.

We agree there should be careful study and adequate controls in place before PGE or anyone else begins wholesale cultivation of any new feedstock. We admit, though, that the idea of a free, self-perpetuating fuel source had momentary appeal. As problems go ...

PGE's Boardman dilemma is illustrative of the chief problem in realizing alternative and renewable energy goals: not one of the alternatives appeals to all of the environmental and advocacy groups poised to litigate every proposal to death.

Wind was the darling of renewable energy, yet projects face endless challenges over siting turbines and the infrastructure necessary to hook them into the grid. They're noisy, they terrorize mating sage grouse, and they kill birds and bats. And you can put them anywhere the wind blows, as long as they don't spoil someone's view -- or the view they would have if ever they were to travel to the site.

Solar is great, but if you try to stick a commercial-sized collection site where the sun shines, the California desert for example, the conservationists will slap you with a lawsuit. Put them on buildings and you face zoning restrictions and complaints about aesthetics.

Ethanol uses too much water and diverts food for fuel. Wave technology disturbs sea creatures. It's pointless to discuss nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams. Nothing is safe enough, unobtrusive enough, cheap enough or green enough to quash a lawsuit.

The modern world requires energy. Without it, life as we know it ends. At some point, the best we can do with what's available has to be good enough until we can do better.

The alternative is another Dark Age. A very, very dark age.


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