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Keith/My Turn: Different calculations

In chiding us to “Do some energy math” (My Turn, July 24), James Bates miscalculates. Above all, he assumes a zero sum. “If you are anti-CO2, anti-nuclear, anti-methane, then you must be for darkness.” No one who exhales is anti-CO2, but some of us are concerned that selfishly dumping huge volumes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is causing harm.

Mr. Bates’ math skips other factors, too. He cites U.S. Energy Information Agency projections of increases in world energy demand as if Massachusetts will use that much more energy, which is wrong.

First, Massachusetts’ energy demand may actually shrink, but certainly is unlikely to increase at the same rate as world demand. The same energy agency’s profile on Massachusetts reports: “State efficiency programs help make Massachusetts among the least energy-intensive states.”

Second, increase in world energy demand is another reason to develop alternative sources since there will be that much more competition — and cost — for limited fuel supplies. Having alternatives helps our bargaining position.

As for pipeline risks, Mr. Bates reassures us that people die in cars every day, but still get in them. Most of us, however, get into cars with seat belts, airbags and anti-lock brakes, all of which save lives and were opposed by voices of reason in their time. Yes, we all take risks, but we also take reasonable precautions. It is not either/or.

For now wind, photovoltaics and conservation are to climate change as airbags and anti-lock brakes are to the risk of cars. They hedge the bet. And in the near future, it is not at all out of the question that they alone could keep us out of the dark. Already, Germany — the economic powerhouse of Europe — gets 25 percent of its energy from renewables, with peak inputs of 74 percent. Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Scotland all reliably draw 45 percent or more from renewables and have much higher peak production levels.

OK, but what about the amount of land it would take to make up for the loss of 768 megawatts of power from the loss of Vermont Yankee and Mount Tom using wind and solar? Mr. Bates calculates (conservatively) that it would take 150 square miles of wind turbines or 12 square miles of photovoltaics and asks if we want to sacrifice that much farmland. But why farmland? Why not roofs and brownfields? No less a company than Google is betting on offshore wind energy: it has invested in laying cables to bring offshore energy to the Atlantic coast.

And don’t forget the other side of the equation. If we go on as we are, rising seas will claim coastal land and require costly seawalls.

“How will this region and specifically western Massachusetts meet its increased energy demands if we do not let companies increase their infrastructure to supply us?” Mr. Bates rightly asks. Not with a pipeline to Dracut. No one is promising any outlets locally. However, Massachusetts is committed to producing 2,000 MW from wind and 1,600 MW from solar power by 2020.

The gas pipeline is being presented as a medium-carbon bridge between high-carbon coal and oil and low- or zero-carbon alternatives to follow. Unlike a real bridge, though, this one will make it harder to get to the other side. Easy access to energy from gas will undercut the incentive to build alternatives. And once the providers of alternative energy systems are safely out of business, the price of gas will almost certainly go up. Furthermore, gas derived from fracking — when leaks, methane seeps and energy inputs are included — may be as damaging as the coal and oil it replaces. ( It’s like trying to give up cigars by smoking cigarettes.

I would guess that Mr. Bates would disapprove of subsidies for wind and solar development, but pipeline companies, according to Forbes Magazine, get an almost unique tax break called a Master Limited Partnership that spares them any corporate taxes. They also have a cap on negligence liability of $1 million — and they can decide what goes through the pipelines. Most of all, they reap profit by helping raise costs everyone else in the world will have to pay as oceans rise, droughts spread and storm patterns change and intensify.

Oil companies regularly boost their estimates of holdings by factoring-in assumed improvements in extraction technologies. Alternative energy is not granted similar assumption of advances. But it is improving rapidly. Leaving such important factors out of the equation oversimplifies the math and makes the answers wrong. We can make real reductions in climate-altering emissions without further shackling ourselves to harmful technologies or turning off the lights.

David Gilbert Keith is a resident of Deerfield and serves on that town’s Energy Resources Committee.

Yes, thanks. I used this talk by Amory Lovins (at 2.46 min): I should have written that Germany gets 25% of the power *it generates* from renewable sources.

I believe you are getting your numbers on German energy and German electrical consumption confused.

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