Ben Luce advocated for renewable energy as a solution to today’s climate change woes but also urged its cautious use in a lecture at the Dartmouth  Dickey Center on Feb 17th.  Luce, a physics professor at Lyndon State College of Vermont, addressed the dangers of our growing consumption of coal while discussing the plausibility of solar and wind power as replacements.

The issue is not a shortage of coal supply, according to Luce; we have “upwards of 500 billion tonnes of coal reserves” at our disposal presently. It is, rather the gross environmental impact of coal combustion that is problematic. If we continue burning coal as we are today with no mitigating action, carbon dioxide emissions will rise from 6 billion tons in 2010 to a staggering 8 billion tons in 2050, Luce predicts.

Nonetheless, due to the development new technologies, the future holds many solutions according to Luce. “As we move towards electric vehicles and geothermal heating, the use of fossil fuels in the transport and heating sectors will dramatically decrease”, in turn decreasing carbon emissions states Luce. China is a more specific example; despite being the single largest coal-burning country today, it also has the cleanest reactors. The nation is a large proponent of electric bicycles, reducing its fossil fuel consumption.

Unfortunately, these technologies are not enough, assesses Luce. We need to find suitable alternatives to coal in order to reduce our environmental impact. Those who still support coal use have suggested carbon sequestration as a possible solution. The concept here is to pump carbon dioxide into large saline aquifers, where the gas is trapped. The drawback to this technique is that carbonic acid is created in the saline aquifer, which can then eat away at certain rocks. Many scientists are afraid of the possibility of another incident like the 1986 eruption of Lake Nyos in Cameroon. Due to underwater carbon dioxide build up, the lake exploded, killing organisms within a 14-mile radius. While Lake Nyos was not an aquifer, carbon sequestration creates a similar environment in aquifers, leading most experts to agree that more research is needed before carbon sequestration should be adopted.

A safer alternative is wind power. However, the effectiveness of this technology is regional. Luce stated that although states like Iowa, Kansas and Texas have a very high “developable wind capacity”, Vermont would have to build windmills along its entire ridgeline to power the state. This means large roads, unsightly mountain tops, the loss of countless birds and bats to collision-deaths and potential noise-pollution. Taking these things into consideration, and that Vermont wind power would contribute less than 1% to US energy needs, Luce believes wind power is “almost irrelevant” for many states.

Luce considers solar power a more viable form of renewable energy. Photovoltaic cells are less obstructive since they can be mounted on roofs or other surfaces. Luce is a proponent of pole-mounted photovoltaics, explaining that the mounts prevent snow from covering the solar cells. Although there have been concerns about the toxins created in the production process, solar cells have been steadily increasing in efficiency, making them more and more attractive as an alternative source of energy.

With this in mind, Luce concluded decreasing the use of coal in tandem with a careful implementation of renewable energy is the best way to combat climate change, Luce concluded.

Luce’s lecture was organised and sponsored by Institute of Arctic Studies at the Dickey Center and the Dartmouth Coalition for Climate Change.