February 28, 2012
By Matt Palmer
This article from the Washington Post is a good introduction to the ideas and regulations behind Life Cycle Analysis of products and industrial processes. Life Cycle Analysis forms part of the back bone of my project, specifically trying to help us all understand that every choice we make comes with impacts. Sometimes the impacts are far from obvious.
Take for example the push to get people to switch their lightbulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent, as a way of being green. The CFL’s are more energy efficient, and supposedly last longer, although I have not found that to be the case. The impact of introducing mercury into millions of homes was overlooked, so it seems. Now if you drop a CFL, you have an environmental problem on your hands. There are recycling programs for CFL’s, both Home Depot and Rona will take them, but are people aware? They should be, but if not the CFL’s go to landfills.
Was this greenwashing? It is an example of the importance of life cycle analysis. Better regulations around life cycle analysis are critical to being able to make better choices for the future. We cannot just consider wind, for example, sustainable because we know the wind will always blow. The impacts of harnessing the wind are the key element. The resources needed to build the wind turbines, the lifespan of the turbine, what can be recycled at the end of the turbines lifespan, and what cannot be recycled must be accounted for. This process would be applied to any energy system like oil sands, coal, nuclear, and solar.
Then each energy system would be evaluated as to how it adds to the global system. The current pushback against nuclear will force governments to make some hard choices. In Germany, retiring all of the nuclear power plants may result in greater reliance on coal. By 2050 all of the US’s fleet of nuclear reactors will be retired. Without new nuclear facilities to replace the old ones, how will the US make up the electricity shortfall? If the choice is for wind, where will the back up capacity come from, because Americans like to have reliable electricity 24/7?
Some energy sources might better suited for a local decentralized system, and others needed to provide base load power for major centres. After applying life cycle analysis we may determine that electricity from wind is valuable in some applications and not others. Exploitation of oil sands might be determined to have too many negatives to outweigh the positives, or a decision could be made that says oil sands are acceptable under certain conditions that may limit speed of growth or other factors. The choices are not going to be easy.
Our energy needs are great. Making honest determinations of the value that various energy sources provide us compared to the impacts is a healthy approach.