While the attention we pay carbon is admirable, I’m afraid our what we can take away from the argument that hydroelectric facilities shouldn’t be utilized if they emit a lot of it is that we’re missing the point.
The age of the carbon emitted is relevant because the problem we face was caused by the movement of very old carbon from a fossilized source into the atmosphere. We can say this carbon would remain locked deep within the Earth if not for us. We can’t, by contrast, say that the carbon released from hydroelectric facilities would be sequestered if not for the dam.
The carbon in our atmosphere, sediments, and oceans is active. It moves naturally from one of these locations to another with or without our interference. The only time we know it’s destined for sequestration is when it reaches a depth where pressure and temperature combine to transform and lock it deep within the Earth.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oak Ridge National Laboratory argue hydroelectric facilities in our neck of the woods should be utilized to support solar and wind rather than other technologies because every alternative will cause more old carbon to be released into our atmosphere for a longer period. While they consider the impact fossil fuels will have as we slowly install these alternatives, you should be concerned with the impact they’ll have as those alternatives are developed as well.
The Manhattan Institute has done a pretty good job of assessing the impact mining, refining, and manufacturing operations will have as they’re expanded to meet this need. It isn’t inconsequential, and as they are expanded these operations will use more fossil fuels for to drive them simply because that’s all they’ve got until the transition has been made. We are looking at a tenfold expansion of these operations, many of which will continue indefinitely as these items must be periodically replaced.
While hydroelectric facilities utilize as much material as solar per kilowatt hour generated, that material is available in abundance and does break down naturally. This is not true of the alternatives. Ninety percent of solar panels end up in landfills.
I won’t go further because I don’t want to discourage you from using alternatives to fossil fuels, but point out that we have a long way to go before any of these technologies are eco friendly if fully assessed from the point of extraction to the point of disposal. The end user may not see the impact, but it’s there. In fact, these technologies require 15 times more energy per unit mass to make than the average automobile, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.