Tackling the Clean Energy

A Utilitarian Perspective In the last century, the world's population has grown exponentially, accelerating from 1.675 billion people in 1900 to ~7.1 billion people in 2013. (World Population Growth 2014). As a result, the strain we induce on the environment as well as resources required for sustained life have also grown exponentially. This has created many issues, ranging from water consumption to overfishing, and anywhere in between. The ever controversial issue however, no matter what part of the world you live in seems to be climate change. The scientific community has largely reached a consensus that anthropogenic activity heavily affects the earth's climate, and largely through the greenhouse gas known as CO2. CO2 is emitted in various ways, be it through exhaust pipes of cars, burning coal, or deforestation (sediments store roughly 80-90% of the earth’s CO2, deforestation disrupts topsoil and releases stored CO2 via erosion, which the tree prevents from occurring). For the past thirty years, there has been a movement addressing the emitting of this greenhouse gas, and it would seem that the general solution is that of clean energy. Clean energy comes in various forms, most of them renewable. T proposed forms of clean energy; wind, hydroelectric, and solar energies offer many benefits as well as reduce the environmental footprint that anthropogenic activity leaves. The benefits that these alternative forms of energy offer substantially more than current methods of energy acquisition. In light of this information, one can argue effectively for a transition to clean energy based on the ideology of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, according to John Stuart Mill, decides actions are moral if they are pleasurable or minimize pain. As such, all desirable things, "are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain" (Mill 17). If one abides by this utilitarian definition of morality, then the pursuit of wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy is not only a logical decision, but a moral one as well.

Wind energy has been well established over the past 15 years or so, and has been in use since the medieval times when farmers would use windmills to pump water and ground grain. (Wind 101: The Basics of Wind Energy 1996). Wind energy uses the kinetic energy that is derived from natural circulation of air in the form of wind. As such, large turbines spin, creating essentially free energy. The only downfall to this schematic is that it costs money to build. It is, however, important to note that, “The current estimate of wind energy potential is 10 times the amount of electricity consumption for the entire country" (Wind 101: The Basics of Wind Energy 2015). Essentially, this means that as far as power in the United States goes, everything that is currently powered by natural gas or coal (resources that are disruptive to the environment to gather and produce CO2 or CH4 when burned) would be able to be replaced. This means that the U.S. would no longer produce approximately two billion metric tons of CO2 every year. As a frame of reference, it is important to understand that volcanoes emit approximately 150-270 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. (Gerlach 2010). Were we to swap to wind energy alone, the United States would be able to stop production of CO2 emission equal to that of 10 volcanoes.

The installation of wind farms has increased in the previous years, however there are many arguments that question the benefit of wind energy, or rather address the drawbacks of it. A common argument is that the aesthetics and noise of wind farms are not always appealing. Residents near already existing wind farms have, in the past, reported that they developed something known as "Wind Turbine Syndrome” which is sleep deprivation due to the low frequency of the turbines. It was, however, disproved, according to one article by Ben Schiller. Schiller states that, “Several recent studies have looked at "wind turbine syndrome" (WTS), giving hope to both believers and deniers—though more to the latter. Most researchers put the condition down to a "nocebo effect," where patients are warned they'll become sick and do. They don't doubt that people are ill, but they say turbines are unlikely to be the cause" (2013). As for the aesthetics, most windmills are located on offshore islands, or at least far from the majority of civilization. According to Mill, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, so those few who may live near wind turbines may just have to suffer for the rest of the world.

It is important to note that once installed, wind farms only require wind to function, and small amounts of technical upkeep. Employment of coal workers, as well as the risks to life that come with them in these areas would cease, and there would be no need for transportation or burning of coal and natural gas. These wind farms also generate electricity for essentially free, so the public would essentially have to pay taxes only on wind turbine maintenance and receive the benefits from it. If the environmental benefits that are plausible from wind energy do not appeal as a moral benefit, let it be understood that money is a great benefit here as well. Mill notes that, “From being a means to happiness, it (money) has come to be itself a principal ingredient of the individual's conception of happiness" (Mill 33). So in this particular case, money has been gained, and money is defined as happiness. We also subsequently avoid the negative effects that coincide with global warming in doing so, minimizing pain. This makes adopting wind energy alone, in terms of utilitarian thinking, the most moral decision the United States and the world can make.

Solar energy, one of the most popular forms of clean energy, utilizes photovoltaic cells (or PV for short) to capture sunlight and convert it to energy. There are two types of solar energy mechanisms, active and passive. Active mechanisms utilize the heat of the sun in a way such that heat is created, for example, moveable mirrors focus ultraviolet radiation from the sun on a collection point, where there is a receiver. A conductor is then heated, and creates electricity. (Solar Power Energy Information 2015) Passive mechanisms preserve heat, in examples such as radiation plates collecting heat throughout the day, and through the use of heat absorbent materials, release heat when required. Both require little to no upkeep and often can be paid off over several years. Not only is solar energy clean, but it also often pays for itself in 5 to 10 years of use (Solar Power Energy Information 2015). At an average use of 1300 kwh per month, (assumed average household), it costs $2400 a year to operate power for 15 cents a kwh. Operating under solar energy however costs less than $100 per year, except to pay off the devices purchased. This means that if wind farms do not work, areas with large amounts of radiation or sunlight can produce their own electricity at essentially no cost.

Solar energy also helps tackle problems pertaining to cars, as electric cars can be charged from the excess from solar energy. According to data, 13% of the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from anthropogenic transportation (Marshall 2014). This means that those gases would not be emitted every year from now on, and many residents of the United States and other countries could essentially have energy for free. Energy would become at some level, a basic human right. This energy would allow access to news, clean water, heat, and many other necessities for modern day life, which not everyone can always have. This helps to support one of the few holes in the Greatest Happiness Principle, that not all people are equal. It is supposed that the principle of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain can only be truly applicable if one person's happiness is the same as another's and is counted the same. (Mill 46) In this particular example, in which everyone reaps the benefits of or can share the benefits of solar energy, all are equal to some extent in the basic acquisition of energy.

Hydroelectric energy, like wind energy, has been used quite literally since the invention of the wheel. Farmers during the middle ages would use wooden wheels turned by water to operate similar processes such as windmills. Hydroelectric energy is entirely clean, emitting no greenhouse gases. The most important thing about hydroelectric energy is that it is completely renewable, thanks to the water cycle. This means that if money is put into the system, there will almost always be a source to reap the benefits from. It is approximated that 16% of the world's energy was generated from hydroelectric dams in 2011, next only to fossil fuels (How Hydroelectric Energy Works 2014). Unfortunately, due to the recent popularity of natural gas, which emits substantially less CO2 than coal, hydroelectricity in the United States has fallen roughly 5% in the recent years. By providing incentives for hydroelectric power production, it would be possible to stray from natural gases and avoid any impact at all from natural gases. Hydroelectric dams also require upkeep, and therefore taxes from the communities they provide power to, however they are much cheaper than an electric bill. This ties back into the idea of the good of the many, and in this particular case, there is no good of the few, only good of the many. The largest problem with hydroelectric power is that there are environmental drawbacks.

Often times dams must be built to harness the power of rivers, and in doing so, sediment buildup occurs along the edges of the dam. This causes undesirable water quality conditions, and difficulties for the animals living there (How Hydroelectric Energy Works 2014). It also causes flooding in areas along the shore behind them, due to the fact that when it rains, water can only travel through the dam at a defined rate. This causes problems to residents living near the dam, as well as farmers who utilize the water. The proposed solution to this has always been careful selection of locations. Through advances in river morphology and geology studies, scientists can effectively predict how a river will change with a reduced input or increased input of water and use man made structures to deal with the problems. Once again, the recurring theme of the good of the many outweighing the few also comes into play, and even if nothing can be done to minimize the negative outcomes to the few, according to utilitarianism, the action is still moral, because the benefit to the many is greater than the pain suffered by the few.

Hydroelectric power, as stated above, is a slippery slope in terms of logic, however under the frame of Utilitarianism, the choice is fairly obvious. The largest reason to logically avoid hydroelectric energy, or at least be careful with it is the ecological impact. However, assuming that the species near the dam are not crucial to the survival of citizens of the area, one might argue that this loss is negligible. Mill outlines that utilitarianism is often compared to and ideology applicable to only animals, however he defends in it a manner that believes animals to be less than humans (Mill 18). Their interests are not taken into account unless they themselves are a mean to happiness, and in the presupposed case, they are not. Therefore, in terms of the drawbacks of hydroelectricity, utilitarianism is concerned only with the destruction of homeowners property and farms. Utilitarianism then adjusts for this loss, in stating that the good of the many outweigh the few.

For each of the clean energies, it is notable that each could alone replace fossil fuels and natural gases, providing an immensely cheaper alternative, and even allowing for a profit. When all three are considered, one can see that the benefits far outweigh the very minimized drawbacks of the energies. Wind energy has no indefinite or supportable drawbacks, and can provide the energy for roughly ten times what the United States requires. Granted, it may not function in all locations, but the further development of electricity transportation could easily overcome this. Solar energy, which has no actual drawbacks other than it is slightly pricey, could revolutionize the world on its own, allowing energy to become somewhat akin to a basic right in first world countries. This helps to patch the one hole in utilitarian theory, making everyone's happiness equal by way of providing energy to everyone. Hydroelectric energy has drawbacks which take away from the whole, but it also accounts for a large part of the world's energy, and provides the most promising future assuming the correct agenda is pushed. Framing the drawbacks of hydroelectric energy also shows us that these drawbacks in the grand scheme of things are not all that detrimental. Each of the energies has its own unique benefit to bring to the table, and yet only one of them has a drawback. Three pleasures to one minimizable pain seems almost too perfect for a utilitarian not to take as a choice. Thus we can, by association, understand that while transitioning from fossil fuel and natural gas to clean energy is a logical decision, it is even more so a moral decision, due to these many pleasures achieved through utilizing them.

Works Cited

  • "How Hydroelectric Energy Works." Union of Concerned Scientists. Union of Concerned Students, 20 June 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  • Gerlarch, Terry. "Volcanic versus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide: The Missing Science." Earth: The Science Behind the Headlines. USGS, 30 July 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  • Marshall, Jessica. "Solar Energy: Springtime for the Artificial Leaf." Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 4 June 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  • Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism." Justice: A Reader. Ed. Michael J. Sandel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 158-199. Print.
  • Schiller, Ben. "Do Wind Turbines Cause A Secret Disease That Drives You Crazy?" Co.Exist. Fast Company & Inc., 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. "Solar Power Energy Information, Solar Power Energy Facts." National Geographic. National Geographic, 12 Sept. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  • "Wind 101: The Basics of Wind Energy." Wind 101: The Basics of Wind Energy. American Wind Energy Association, 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
  • "World Population Growth." Our World in Data. Oxford University, May 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.