Why Should Friends be Concerned about Energy?

by Karen Street
published in Friends Bulletin November 1999

Sometimes, a seemingly minor turn in the path leads to one’s life road. This happened to me about three years ago. After losing much of my hearing, I could no longer teach high school physics, and so enrolled in writing classes, hoping to become a science writer. As the topic for one paper, I chose nuclear vs fossil fuel, curious how they would compare. After all, I knew, no matter how much energy we save through increased efficiency and conservation (and we can and should save substantially), and no matter how rapidly we shift to renewable energy sources (and we can and should shift), fossil fuels and nuclear fuel will provide the great majority of our electricity for some time to come. What I learned changed me as a Friend.

I had heard the anti-nuclear arguments for years, about the dangers from nuclear power plant accidents and the dangers of nuclear waste.The concerns about nuclear power tend to be non-quantitative. Numbers of curies (decay rates) and lengths of half-lives are included, but neglected are bottom-line considerations—how will health and the environment be affected by Western use of nuclear power? The bottom line numbers are these: no one has died from commercial nuclear power plant accidents or the use of nuclear power in the U.S., though the technology is new, and the probability of an accident is very small, and even smaller with the next generation of reactors. Two thousand reactor years of nuclear waste may kill some 1 1/2 people each decade, some 1500 over the next 10,000 years. But, we’d “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of” (Hamlet, Act III Scene I).

The real environmental concern, it turns out, is the overuse of fossil fuels. This and overpopulation (we may already have exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth) are arguably the two most serious and intractable environmental issues.

In the U.S. alone, tens of thousands of Americans each year, millions over the next century, will die from pollution from fossil fuel use. These short-term pollution problems (from particulates, aerosols, NOx, SOx, CO, ozone, benzene) kill some 60,000+ Americans each year, primarily due to lung diseases and cancers, kill many more worldwide, and have major environmental repercussions (water and soil pollution; and harm to crops, forests, and ecosystems). Additionally, global climate change, a consequence of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, promises an even bleaker future.

Our queries ask us about stewardship: we are facing global environmental catastrophes from our use of fossil fuel. Our testimonies tell us to take away the occasions that lead to war: energy and water are expected to be the two main causes of war in the immediate future. Our testimonies speak of equality: oil production will peak in the next 10 to 15 years while 4% of the world’s population uses about 25% of the world’s oil. Our testimony says that we will not fight with outward weapons, yet our lifestyle itself is killing large numbers.

Our concern about these issues led some members of Berkeley Meeting to begin Friends Energy Project. Our interest is not to promote nuclear over fossil fuel, but to try to understand all of the issues in U.S. energy policy and energy use, and then to do the work that we feel called as Friends to do as a consequence of that understanding.

What are some major issues in U.S. energy policy?

• The U.S. has no agency whose responsibility it is to ask which energy sources are best, answer that question, and implement policy based on the answer. What we do have is federal/state disagreements, disagreements between different departments within the federal government, and rapid changes of administration, all of which contribute to delays, increase bureaucracy, and produce conflicting policies.

Our public debate is over poorly phrased questions: we ask about the health and environmental effects of building this dam or that nuclear power plant. We don’t ask about the effects of failing to build them, thereby automatically selecting fossil fuel sources.

The U.S. should substantially increase funding for research in improved efficiency, and create the political and economic structures needed so that the results of efficiency research are rapidly and widely used. Research on non-fossil fuel energy sources should be funded. We should consider how we subsidize and promote one energy source over another, and find a more equitable method that subsidizes the fossil fuels less generously. Fossil fuel research should be funded, and the results used, to decrease the dangers from fossil fuels.

• The U.S. does not include the total costs of energy in the prices. The military subsidizes our transportation fuels. The costs of energy are also paid by those people and environments harmed, and by increased insurance costs and costs of building maintenance. These costs, called externalities of the fuel cycle, are external (not included in the price) subsidies of energy, especially of the fossil fuels. The European Community created ExternE, an organization of scientists, to calculate the health and environmental parts of these costs. ExternE neglects military costs and the cost of future scarcity. ExternE recommends that the prices of electricity be increased, from less than 0.5 American cent per kWh for wind, solar, and nuclear power to as much as 19 cents per kWh for coal. These costs include the total fuel cycle uranium and extend to 10,000 years into the future.

For transportation fuels, prices are even more subsidized. ExternE finds that European costs exceed European prices by a minimum of $0.60 per gallon for gasoline (rural) up to $4 per gallon in Paris. For diesel, costs exceed prices by a minimum of $1.75 per gallon (rural) up to $30 per gallon in Paris.

• In the U.S., transportation policies are chaotic, all in some degree of crisis, according to the 1997 report of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology on US energy policy.

What are the major issues in U.S. energy use?

• We use large amounts of oil per capita, more than any other country. We take frequent trips by car and airplane, drive low mileage cars, and live in the suburbs where buses and trains are of less benefit. We attach words like independence and freedom to car ownership and use.

• We insulate poorly and use energy inefficient appliances.

• We consume too much. We live in large houses with many possessions.

Global Climate Change

Global climate change is occurring because of the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created to study this. Global climate change is considered by the consensus of people studying the issue to be a major environmental danger, perhaps Earth’s most devastating. There is no serious opposition to this assertion in the scientific community. Unfortunately, U.S. media interview people from “both sides”, allowing Americans to think scientists disagree.

These are the findings of IPCC (you can get more information from your daily newspaper or our web site):

• “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”;
• “climate change is likely to have wide-ranging and mostly adverse impacts on human health with significant loss of life”;
• “climate change and the resulting sea-level rise can have a number of negative impacts on ... cultural systems and values”.

How can we begin? What do we do?

The first step is the most difficult. We must begin to look at the issues. In doing this, we acknowledge our faith that much can be done.

Begin with threshing sessions and interest groups: What are the issues in energy policy? What are my concerns about energy policy? How am I living my life? How should I be living my life?

Acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and that solutions will be both difficult and partial.

Make individual and corporate small steps. One Friend does not drive on the first Friday of the month, nor does she invite people to drive to her. Another is setting up a data base for carpooling. Pick a small local or national project to help with.

Answers will emerge from individual and corporate wisdom.

Friends Energy Project

riends Energy Project has been set up to facilitate discussion among Friends on energy issues and related issues such as population. We would like to help people with similar interests work together. We are available to visit your interest group.

Please visit our web site and give us your ideas, your interest, and your knowledge. Contribute your writing. Let us know what you and others are doing.