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Green Iconoclast

An environmental researcher pokes holes in favored

alternative-energy strategies.

By Thomas K. Grose

There are skeptics, and then there are environmental contrarians like Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Almost no popular alternative energy solution escapes his skewering. Electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids? No better than the gasoline-
powered variety. Solar and wind power? Overhyped “greenwash” and not all that clean, either. Hydrogen? A dead-end technology that keeps returning like a “zombie,” resurrected by special interests.

Such critiques might not be so unusual were Zehner a climate-change denier or conservative activist. But he’s an environmental researcher and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley who plays for the green team, too. He serves on the editorial board of the online journal Critical Environmentalism, for instance. The difference? Zehner maintains that in their rush to tear apart their opponents’ half-truths, cherry-picked facts, pseudoscience, and outright lies, eco-champions often turn a blind eye to the equally bogus claims of alternative energy proponents. His book “looks at the unintended consequences of alternative energy technologies and how they have seduced us into overlooking durable, inexpensive, and ultimately more enjoyable solutions.” It also is an antidote, he says, to the way the media typically frame the problem: that the world faces an energy shortage and needs new ways to create even more energy.

Although Green Illusions takes aim at a host of technologies, reviewers have mainly focused on Zehner’s dismissal of EVs and hybrids. He maintains that battery and electric-motor manufacturing require so much energy, as well as toxic materials and minerals, that the end result is in no way a green solution. The EV lobby wasn’t amused. In a lengthy Wired article, EV proponents slammed Zehner’s research as “ridiculous” and “dubious.” Zehner remains unruffled, saying the industry is “clearly interested in protecting (its) turf.” But he does admit to being initially surprised that his whack at EVs — just a small part of his book — generated so much coverage. He has come to understand it as natural, given the emotional connection Americans have to cars. Pointing out eco-mobile limitations, Zehner says, is “almost as bad as calling somebody’s baby ugly.”

Green Illusions isn’t just a diatribe against environmental sacred cows, however. Zehner, who has a bachelor’s in engineering from Michigan’s Kettering University and graduate degrees in science and technology studies from the University of Amsterdam, also calls his book a “constructive” critique. He wrote it, he says, “to spur discussions about how alternative energy technologies can be more relevant in the future.” So Zehner also devotes many pages to what he contends are more sustainable solutions to pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change. Mainly, he argues, society would do better to greatly reduce global energy consumption, which would then make some alternative forms of energy more workable. Spend more on mass transit, Zehner suggests. Fix urban traffic flows to encourage more walking and bicycling. Though a fan of energy-saving architecture, he says today’s green-building designs often rely too heavily on just two technologies: solar panels and urban wind turbines.

Isn’t trying to put the planet on a stringent energy diet as unworkable and politically naive as is trying to curb the global love affair with cars? Perhaps, Zehner concedes. But at least he’s trying to start the discussion. “I certainly don’t have all of the answers, so I see that dialogue as necessary,” he says. Even if it means irritating a few environmentalists along the way.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.



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