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Dam Trade-Offs:

The Reason Foundation's Shikha Dalmia challenges environmentalist calls to remove dams from western rivers. Hydroelectric dams may have been wasteful and environmentally destructive boondoggles when they were built, but now that they are in place they provide relatively cheap electricity without emitting carbon dioxide.

Once regarded as the symbol of national greatness, hydroelectric dams have now fallen into disrepute for many legitimate reasons. They are enormously expensive undertakings that would never have taken off but for hefty government subsidies. Worse, they typically involve changing the natural course of rivers, causing painful disruptions for towns and tribes.

But tearing down the Klamath dams, the last of which was completed in 1962, will do more harm than good at this stage. These dams provide cheap, renewable energy to 70,000 homes in Oregon and California. Replacing this energy with natural gas--the cleanest fossil-fuel source--would still pump 473,000 tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. This is roughly equal to the annual emissions of 102,000 cars.

Given this alternative, one would think that environmentalists would form a human shield around the dams to protect them. Instead, they have been fighting tooth-and-nail to tear them down because the dams stand in the way of migrating salmon. Environmentalists don't even let many states, including California, count hydro as renewable.

Yet hydro is not the only power that some environmentalists oppose. Nearly every viable alternative energy source has provoked some amount of environmentalist opposition.

Their opposition to nuclear energy is well known. Wind power? Two years ago the Center for Biological Diversity sued California's Altamont Pass Wind Farm for obstructing and shredding migrating birds. ("Cuisinarts of the sky" is what many greens call wind farms.) Solar? Worldwatch Institute's Christopher Flavin has been decidedly lukewarm about solar farms because they involve placing acres of mirrors in pristine desert habitat. The Sierra Club and Wilderness Society once testified before Congress to keep California's Mojave Desert--one of the prime solar sites in the country--off limits to all development. Geothermal energy? They are unlikely to get enviro blessings, because some of the best sites are located on protected federal lands.

What to do? No source of energy is perfect; all involve trade-offs. Some like to think conservation is the cure, but marginal reductions in energy use will only do so much. If global warming is the greatest environmental threat, then it may be worth enduring other environmental impacts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In a world of infinite trade-offs, we can only do so much.

UPDATE: American Rivers responds here. Their bottom line: "To say that all dams are beneficial and should be protected, . . . is as absurd as saying all dams are bad and should be removed." The issue is which dams should (or should not) be removed and why.

WHOI Jacket:
To some of these groups, its not an engineering question. There are groups (smallish, but getting larger) that want you to have less energy no matter where it comes from. No alternative will be good enough, one must turn off the lights and never turn them back on again.
5.30.2007 7:36pm
cirby (mail):
Hydroelectric dams aren't the only ones they have to deal with. A LOT of ponds and lakes across the US are man-made (far more than you'd think).

In some places (like Texas), pretty much every lake of more than a couple of acres is either man-made or man-altered to be a "real" lake.
5.30.2007 8:03pm
alkali (mail) (www):
There's sort of a grouping fallacy going on here. "American citizens claim to want what's best for the country, but in the last election they were almost equally divided on the question of who should be president. Ho! I suppose we shouldn't take their claim to want what's best for the country very seriously then."

To push it a bit further, the idea that there is some defined group of people who are "environmentalists" is not really that coherent. To the extent that term means "people who think that environmental protection is a very important issue" I'm not sure who wouldn't claim to fall into that category. The fact that people who think that environmental protection is a very important issue may have differing views about priorities and how costs and benefits should be weighed should not be that surprising.
5.30.2007 8:18pm
The Drill SGT:
We should be building more nuke plants and more wind farms now. Both technologies are proven and don't produce CO2. Solar panels IMHO, don't yield a positive ROI regardless of how you fiddle the numbers.


Many of those eco groups are as WHOI pointed put, basically worse than NIMBY's (not in my back yard) groups, they are BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) organizations.
5.30.2007 8:24pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Yes and libertarians don't believe in efficiency savings but do believe in some magical technological solution. Good, now we got that out of our systems let's discuss how some mixture of all of this is necessary
5.30.2007 8:52pm
Chris Owen:
Unfortunately Prof. Adler's wrong in stating that hydroelectric dams "provide relatively cheap electricity without emitting carbon dioxide" - worse still, they produce large amounts of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Dams can actually produce more GHGs than power plants running on fossil fuels. It's the result of rotting vegetation in the reservoir behind the dam; the gases are trapped in deep water but are released when the water passes through the dam's turbines.

See this 1995 article from New Scientist: "Hydroelectric power's dirty secret revealed". Environmentalists have some very good reasons to dislike hydroelectric power!
5.30.2007 9:05pm
Chris Owen:
Oops, that should have been 2005, of course...
5.30.2007 9:13pm
Stan Peterson (mail):
Environmentalism has abeen captured by the Socialist wartermelon crazies. They neither care a fig about the environment or any particular good thing. Since their descredited assisnity of economics, has failed in over a 100 countries with yet to produce a single example of success, no one in a sane mind would follow theman dlet them have a cushy life in POWER.

But any upset that they can jump in front of and pretend to "lead" gives them cover. Many a terible politician has made a career thusly. Look at the genle grifter Mr. Reid; he atarted out as a NIMBY BANANA protesting the solution to radioactive waste.

Instead of being safely sealed off from the biosphere it sits in lots of pools near man's habitation just waiting for an accident to disperse it. Progress. Ain't it Wonderful!

I don't hink we need to liquidate them as they would do to us, ruthlessly given a chance. Tom Clancy had the Solomonic answer to these loonses in one of his novels. Drop them miles from anybody, stark naked, in the middle of the Amazon jungle and let them "Commune" with Nature.
5.30.2007 9:28pm
Shelby (mail):
Eli Rabett:
libertarians don't believe in efficiency savings

Where did that come from? Are you using some new definition of 'libertarian' I haven't encountered before?
5.30.2007 9:33pm
Avatar (mail):
Well, if the methane is released as it goes through the turbines, isn't that, y'know, recoverable? Hell, you could burn it for -even more energy-. Anyone run the numbers on it?
5.30.2007 9:36pm
Jeek:
The Chinese have the right idea!

China Embraces Nuclear Future

As governments worldwide look at nuclear power as a possible answer to global warming, China has embarked on a nuclear-plant construction binge that eventually could exceed the one the United States undertook during the technology's heyday in the 1960s.

Under plans already announced, China intends to spend $50 billion to build 32 nuclear plants by 2020. Some analysts say the country will build 300 more by the middle of the century. That's not much less than the generating power of all the nuclear plants in the world today.
5.30.2007 9:39pm
Andrew Okun:
Yet another article that seems as if it is going to be an interesting part of the "which source of energy" debate but quickly dissolves into another wholesale assault on environmentalists. Not only are we all totalitarian lunatics who want to decrease the surplus population to make room for grizzly bears, but we all forms of energy use. Dalmia implies we are all against hydro power, which we're not (though maybe we should be), and that we're against nuclear, which some are not. Not enough to make us seem like lunatics? I guess not because he goes on to claim we are against wind energy and solar energy as well. That is just asinine.

It is about attacking and discrediting environmentalists, not picking sources of energy or, Prof. Adler's summary notwithstanding, dam trade-offs.
5.30.2007 9:47pm
Andrew Okun:
Environmentalism has abeen captured by the Socialist wartermelon crazies.

What is a Socialist wartermelon crazy?
5.30.2007 9:50pm
Toby:
Andrew Okun:

Green on the outside, red on the inside
5.30.2007 9:53pm
Jim FSU 1L (mail):
I would guess that they are both green on the outside, red on the inside. But that pretty much describes the entire Green movement, so it's kind of redundant.
5.30.2007 9:55pm
Andrew Okun:
Green on the outside, red on the inside
Then it is just another dumb insult. Okeydoke.
5.30.2007 10:11pm
Steve:
It's still worth recalling who put the solar panels on the White House, and who took them down. We expect craziness from the fringe, maybe not so much from our elected leaders.
5.30.2007 10:12pm
Mac (mail):
From the article mentioned by Chris Owen:

Claiming that hydro projects are net producers of greenhouse gases is not new (New Scientist print edition, 3 June 2000) but the issue now appears to be climbing up the political agenda. In the next round of IPCC discussions in 2006, the proposed National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Programme, which calculates each country's carbon budget, will include emissions from artificially flooded regions.

But these guidelines will only take account of the first 10 years of a dam's operation and only include surface emissions. Methane production will go unchecked because climate scientists cannot agree on how significant this is; it will also vary between dams. But if Fearnside gets his way these full emissions would be included.

It appears methane is not quite a significant cause for alarm, yet. The science is far from settled in this debate, no matter what some would have us believe.
5.30.2007 10:13pm
FantasiaWHT:

Not only are we all totalitarian lunatics who want to decrease the surplus population to make room for grizzly bears, but we all forms of energy use. Dalmia implies we are all against hydro power, which we're not (though maybe we should be), and that we're against nuclear, which some are not. Not enough to make us seem like lunatics? I guess not because he goes on to claim we are against wind energy and solar energy as well. That is just asinine.


The problem is that we have one political party which supposedly represents half of the country that takes up these disparate views of different "breeds" of environmentalists and makes all of their causes its own.
5.30.2007 10:35pm
spring (mail):
Chris,Avatar, Mac,

Glad you saw the dam methane articles and, yes, why not burn it on site--CO2 is (they say) many times less effective than methane at trapping heat.
5.30.2007 10:36pm
Mac (mail):
spring, Chris, Avatar, Fantasia,

Then there is this:

"Global warming alarmists may be compelled to consider that chain of causation this week thanks to two new studies just published in the Jan. 12 issue of the journal Nature .

In the first study, Max Planck Institute researchers reported their discovery that living plants emit into the atmosphere methane (natural gas), the third most important greenhouse gas behind water vapor and carbon dioxide.

Until this discovery, scientists thought the methane in the atmosphere was largely produced by bacterial processes not involving oxygen. But the Max Planck researchers report that living plants — two-thirds of which are in tropical rainforest regions — produce 10 to 30 percent of annual global methane production.

The implications of this study are stunning. Previously, it was thought that the net effect of growing plants was to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, therefore, to reduce global warming. But in the words of New Zealand climate researcher David Lowe, "We now have the specter that new forests might increase greenhouse warming through methane emissions rather than decrease it by being sinks for carbon dioxide."

The discovery also implies that deforestation — that is, cutting down trees — slows methane accumulation in the atmosphere and, as a consequence, reduces global warming."

Stop Global Warming! Quit planting those forests!
5.30.2007 10:50pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
The alternative to a tree rotting in a reservoir is for it to rot in place. Eventually it will rot somewhere. A heavy mat of detritus in a forest floor includes both aerobic and anaerobic conditions and will also produce both CO2 and CH4, just as it would in a reservoir. The CO2 produced in a reservoir would be dissolved, and significant amounts would be converted rapidly into algae, recapturing the carbon as plantlike material, and releasing oxygen in the process.

This is all to say that the question as to whether a dam affects greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere long term is far more complex than just measuring or calculating the CO2 and CH4 from the reservoir as the article from New Scientist mentioned in a previous comment seems to say was done.

Regarding the effects of dams on Salmon, wouldn't the Salmon have adapted to the current situation since 1962 when the last dam was built? Otherwise those types of slamon would now be extinct, since the life of salmon is somewhat less than 45 years.
5.30.2007 10:51pm
Letalis (mail):
I've heard R. Dobie Langenkamp ask the question many times:

"Where is America going to get the quads?"

If you know what he is talking about, no explanation is necessary. If you don't, ask yourself what it is that allows you to read this comment.
5.30.2007 10:56pm
Freddy Hill:
Why stop at man-made lakes? Let's drain the Great Lakes and REALLY reduce methane emissions!
5.31.2007 1:10am
occidental tourist (mail):
Alkali makes a fair point about grouping:


American citizens claim to want what's best for the country, but in the last election they were almost equally divided on the question of who should be president. ....the idea that there is some defined group of people who are "environmentalists" is not really that coherent.



But the implicit point in Jonathan's post is that the environmental lobby for renewable energy is macro and the environmental opposition to renewable projects is micro.

If there were an equally strong contingent of those claiming an environmental purpose fighting to keep the Klamath dams in place I think your comments would resonate more. Even if there were a question of Methane contribution, you wouldn't want to rip the dams out until you understood this effect wholly as you'll never be able to put them back.

If you rip the dam out where does the trapped methane go? Is it largely associated with decay of flooded plant life from the original building of the dam or ongoing aquatic growth and decomposition. (of course I would submit you would also want to a lot more humble with regards to global warming as an accepted bogeyman to begin with.)

In any event, the best that one can accomplish with this argument is to refute charges of hypocrisy in favor of the idea that there are differences in the ranks. But those attempting to co-opt government policy based on their own preferences are apt to deny differences in the pursuit of their cause - see, e.g., Al Gore's constant insistence that there is no debate about the looming catastrophe posed by global warming.

It is this type of holier than thou rhetoric often associated with some kind of secular spiritual purpose that invites the fairly snide remarks of we anti-environmentalists, i.e., those disenchanted with the centrality of concern for the environment as an precautionary principle for the functioning [or nonfunctioning] of society. I read this type of remark on a board that commonly engenders more high minded debate as a sign of frustration.

It is self-evidently true that government environmental programs have been a boon for central planning, a method that has garnered far less favor in the economic arena. I don't however imagine it as the last bastion of socialists -- it is representative of a fifth column victory. It is the intellectual space for a more lassiez-faire point of view that is the last bastion for classic liberals who are about to get snuffed out (with all due respect to andrew okun) 'to decrease the surplus population to make room for grizzly bears'.

See, e.g., serious discussion in this month's Scientific American of reintroducing a vast array of carnivores, elephants and ungulates such as camels to the intermountain west of the continental divide states (this is the abstract, you have to give the loons who run that magazine money to read the whole article which I would not). After all, these areas are only populated by loggers and miners and ranchers who are already getting along famously with wolves and grizzly bears.

Meanwhile mines get spiked and the rise in the price of copper makes oil look cheap. Welcome to Jurassic Park. We'll all be a nation of tourists and tourist guides (and a few stockbrokers and lawyers). The question of whether anyone likes that or not is pretty irrelevant, its just happening anyway.

Brian
5.31.2007 9:20am
rarango (mail):
Occidental: Thank you for not paying a dime to Scientific American; that magazine destroyed whatever credibility it might have had in its assault on Bjorn Lomborg's work (and him personally) several years ago.
5.31.2007 10:37am
Justin (mail):
I think Alkali's concern, which is fair, is that Jonathan Adler's broader point is that "environmentalists aren't serious about improving the environment, and should be ignored," and his proof is that "environmentalists sometimes disagree amongst each other about the best way to improve the environment," and as such, the offer of proof does not match the assertion.
5.31.2007 11:05am
TJIT (mail):
The most aggravating aspect of much environmental activism in the energy related area is.

1. The wishful thinking

2. The ignorance of the law of unintended consequences.

Biofuel policy provides a good example of this. Biofuels have no chance of replacing anything but a trivial amount of the fuel used for transportation.

The environmental cost of that trivial replacement has been very high with rainforests being destroyed in Brazil and Asia to plant soybeans and palm trees for biodiesel production. Ethanol has been an economic and ecologic train wreck in the US.

However, many environmental groups continue to push these failed technologies.
5.31.2007 12:38pm
Gordo:
Why is Reason Magazine concerned about global warming? I thought they (and Professor Adler) were global warming skeptics?
5.31.2007 1:06pm
TJIT (mail):
Gordo,

Policies implemented to fight global warming can and have caused great environmental damage, great economic damage, and lead to no reduction in CO2 production.

Which means you need to be concerned about the policy whatever you think about global warming.
5.31.2007 1:32pm
Amy Kober (mail) (www):
To say that all dams are beneficial and should be protected, as Ms. Dalmia maintains in the Wall Street Journal piece, is as absurd as saying all dams are bad and should be removed.

We need to look at each dam on an individual basis and weigh its costs and benefits.

On the Klamath River, the California Energy Commission found that with the money the dam owner would spend to modernize the dams, the company could replace the entire Klamath project generation with a 170 megawatt wind plant, a 100 megawatt solar plant, or it could make efficiency upgrades to its distribution system.

So, removing the Klamath dams can be done without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Dam removal would also save PacifiCorp ratepayers money. Restoring a free-flowing Klamath River would restore salmon runs, vital to the coastal fishing industry and to Indian tribes.

In her piece, Ms. Dalmia seems more interested in bashing conservationists than in having a real dialogue about global warming.

http://blog.americanrivers.org
5.31.2007 1:47pm
FantasiaWHT:
What scientific magazine would people recommend instead of Scientific American? (that's readable by someone without a science background)
5.31.2007 2:00pm
Mac (mail):
Fantasia,

I am so glad you asked the question and I hope someone with knowledge of what is available will respond. I have been looking at a number of them and have been disappointed with the lack of objectivity.
5.31.2007 3:02pm
Mac (mail):
Amy,

"On the Klamath River, the California Energy Commission found that with the money the dam owner would spend to modernize the dams, the company could replace the entire Klamath project generation with a 170 megawatt wind plant, a 100 megawatt solar plant, or it could make efficiency upgrades to its distribution system. "

You don't mention how much the plant generates now nor how much it would generate after it is modernized. I do believe that the wind and solar you mention would be a drop in the electrical bucket in terms of producing the energy that the dam produces. It would certainly be a first if it could come remotely close to matching the dam.
5.31.2007 3:05pm
markm (mail):
In addition, wind and solar plants only produce intermittent power, at times that are not under the control of the power company. By contrast, a hydropower plant is readily turned on and off as needed, with the water accumulating behind the dam until it is needed. You not only can't replace hydropower with wind and solar, but even coal and nuclear plants give you less flexibility.
5.31.2007 5:11pm
Bryan DB:
Mac,
Klamath produces 163 MW.
5.31.2007 5:36pm
Eric Anondson (mail):
So, reservoirs behind hydro dams collect rotting vegetation and methane gets released. What's the big deal exactly? The rotting vegetation is collected in the reservoir as opposed to somewhere else down river. Methane release is reduced downriver but increased at the reservoir. But what is the proof it is an overall increase in methane?
5.31.2007 6:37pm
Mac (mail):
Bryan DB,
Thank you. Also, thanks for the additional info. and thoughts, markm and Eric Anondson.
Does anyone know of the feasability of a 170 megawatt wind plant or a 100 megawatt solar plant?

I seem to recall that vast numbers of windmills and solar only produce a relatively, esp. to the size of the projects, small amount of electricity and as markm pointed out, it is intermittent. I can't recall any project, no matter how big producing enough electricity to serve very many customers.
5.31.2007 8:01pm