Apr 30, 2008

Earth Day Class Letter Elicits Response [LINK]

Dear Ms. Wood,

I read your class's letter to the Sunday Globe, and sent the appended letter in response to express my disappointment.

My own casual search on solar power success stories in the Seattle area quoted average energy savings at about 20 percent. Even accounting for generous subsidies, the more advanced photovoltaic systems cost thousands of dollars, and tend to pay for themselves only after many years. Imagine breaking even only after paying off a thirty-year mortgage, and you begin to see the problem.

Interestingly, I also ran across cases in which Seattle-area schools built with solar panels and a host of other eco-friendly features wound up consuming significantly more energy than conventional schools, because they require more vigorous air circulation.

I also recall reading the results of a risk analysis study many years ago, which may serve as a useful thought experiment for your students. It identified solar as the most lethal of all available energy options. The reasoning behind this counter-intuitive result is that large-scale deployment of solar panels would require many homeowners to perform routine maintenance, and these people have a nasty habit of falling off roofs. Any assessment of the benefits of photovoltaic solar power in particular would also have to account for the toxic chemical pollution that would result, since panels are made with arsenic, gallium, and cadmium.


Michael Sierra

Perhaps it's good that a tenth grade Boston Latin class is encouraged to participate in civic affairs by writing a joint letter to the Globe. Still, if I were grading their letter about global warming, I'd send it back for more work.

"Much of East Boston will be underwater when today's teens are in their 30s," it reads, quoting unnamed "scientists." Given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently estimates annual sea level increases as high as 3.1 millimeters, it would take roughly a century to rise a foot, and over 160 years at the current annual rate of 1.8 mm. In other words, not "much" of East Boston would be underwater in 15 years, and far less than routine tidal variations. If students really believe global warming is a dire problem in need of an immediate response, this should not be their only supporting point.

Another claim makes little sense. Even in cloudy areas like Seattle, the amount of sunlight a building receives is said to offer more than enough energy to power it. But the next sentence reveals the problem with this statement: scientists haven't yet figured out how to harness all that dissipated energy, with little hint that they could. Why not ask instead: "If scientists can figure out how to make iPods, computers, and cellphones," why can't they provide a cheap, safe, emission-free method to generate electricity from splitting atoms?

If students are so insistent that we focus more on the issue of global warming, it would be good to stay on that subject and not meander into the national debt, job-creation schemes, food prices, tax policy, and potential cures for recessions. The students insist the government should impose a tax on oil in order to subsidize alternative energy development and presumably to make fossil fuels comparatively unattractive. Fair enough, but the very next sentence complains: "gas prices are rising so much that they are affecting the price of food." Surely they must realize that taxing oil would raise gas prices even further, and food prices along with them. Why should high prices be thought of as good in one case, but bad in another?

It's one thing for Ms. Wood to use this writing exercise as an excuse to funnel leftist propaganda. But at the very least she could have insisted it make logical sense.