Balancing Energy Benefits with Risks

Renewable energy has risks, but they can be mitigated with careful regulation

By Ed Rendell


American Energy Infrastructure is challenged in many ways. Almost all of our traditional ways of producing electricity or fuel have detrimental consequences for our environment or present health, or present safety dangers to surrounding areas (i.e. nuclear or hydropower).

As a result, many Governors look to alternative sources of renewable energy. Because Pennsylvania has the highest elevation of any state east of the Mississippi River, I put tremendous effort into developing our wind energy infrastructure. It was truly renewable and its production put zero pollutants into the air. It was a no brainer. Who could object to wind energy?

The state Sierra Club, that’s who! They were concerned with the potential harm that could occur to birds and bats from the giant blades that whip around to produce the energy! As I read the protest letter the Sierra Club had sent me, my thoughts went to the couple of hundred Canadian geese that inhabit a 100-yard stretch of the East River Drive in Philadelphia. They were a gift from Canada during Mayor Frank Rizzo’s tenure. Each winter for the past 50 years, those beautiful geese leave us and fly south and then, when spring arrives, they fly hundreds of miles north and fly back to the same 100-yard stretch unharmed. But they can’t fly around giant blades 60 yards long!

The point of this story is that there is no form of energy that can be produced without some downside, and the choices we make are almost never are black or white. With this in mind, we must compare the alternatives and go forward realizing there is no perfect answer.

Two examples come to mind. First of these is fracking, the process that has unlocked a veritable flood of new natural gas resources. This deep drilling, if not done with great care, can pose danger to ground water, and the disposal of polluted frack water can be detrimental if it isn’t carefully carried out. However, burning natural gas to produce electricity is more than 50 percent cleaner than burning coal.

Should we produce electricity only from using non-polluting renewables like wind and solar? Sure, but we won’t have the capacity to produce 100 percent of our electricity from wind and solar till 2040 at the earliest. So, natural gas is better for the environment, and fracking is an important bridge to the future. It should be policed and regulated well, but it’s a better environmental path to tread.

Second, we must be realistic about the process of transporting our energy resources to populations where they are needed. There are basically only two ways to do this: either by pipelines or by rail. There is danger in either method, but all experts agree that rail is the more unreliable of the two, so we must have pipelines. Meanwhile, it is fair to say that nobody wants pipelines near where they live, work, or play. However, the truth is, unless we are going to go without fuel, we must have pipelines. We all need to come to grips with that basic fact.

Rina Cutler, who worked for me during my tenure as Mayor and Governor, coined phrases that echoed “NIMBY”. She said there were protestors organized in groups called “NOPE” (Nowhere On Planet Earth) and “CAVE” (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). But folks, those pipelines have to go somewhere.

Citizen protestors have a point though: pipelines should be constructed with the utmost care, and their construction and operation should be subject to the most stringent regulatory oversight. The route a pipeline must follow should be planned only after incredibly careful consideration and with total transparency and input from the citizenry.

I considerably believe that our government does its oversight responsibilities well. We can have an energy infrastructure that’s better, safer, and serves as an important bridge to the future.

Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania’s 45th Governor, began a second term of office on January 16, 2007, following a landslide re-election victory. As Governor, Rendell served as chief executive of the nation’s 6th-most populous state and oversaw a $27.5 billion budget. He currently serves as co-chair for Building America’s Future Educational Fund (BAF Ed Fund), a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure that enhances our nation’s prosperity and quality of life.