Editor’s note: In spring semester 2016, the first Loras science course was taught in Ireland via the Ireland Study Abroad program. In this three-part column, Dr. Tom Davis will remark on the issues that they experienced while abroad as part of his class. This is the third part in this series.
The last environmental issue we investigated compared sustainability and renewable energy use in Ireland to the U.S. The Loras students and I lived in Dublin. We all used public transportation daily. Each form of transit (the Dublin Area Rapid Transit, the Dublin bus, the Irish Rail, or the Luas) was easy to use, affordable, safe, clean and mostly convenient. Our carbon footprint, which largely is calculated by the amount of CO2 one releases per day, was quite small, and we were rather proud of it. We walked everywhere, too. When we returned to the States, all of us dreaded paying for gas to put in our vehicles. Vehicles! Oh! I probably can use the fingers on one hand to represent the number of pick-up trucks or minivans seen on the roads in Ireland. Many of the cars had diesel engines, were small and produced very little emissions. Regarding electricity conservation, most hotels in Ireland and Europe require the room key be inserted in a slot to keep the lights on in the rooms. When you remove the key as you leave, all the room electricity is automatically shut off. We all thought this practice needed to be widespread in America now.
As we see throughout Iowa, the number of windmills is increasing each year in Ireland. Currently, there are over 230 wind farms in Ireland. Irish people have mixed feelings about them. They see the need to harness the wind to produce close to zero CO2-output electricity. But they are definitely eyesores across certain areas of the windy west coast to which tourists come to enjoy the unobstructed views of the green, rocky, boggy Irish landscape. Coal and peat briquettes/compressed logs are sold outside convenience stores and gas stations throughout the country like bundles of firewood are here. The air pollution and unsustainability of these two energy sources has been noted and their use is declining. One other small thing that we all noted was the large amounts of water used per flush in Irish toilets. Wow! We were sure to stand back before flushing as the tidal wave of water that went up and down through the bowl threatened to suck us in as it roared down the hole.
Another energy technology that many in Ireland are awaiting is the use of ocean waves, tides and currents to turn turbines to generate electricity. After investigating this more, we found two sites in Ireland that were experimenting with this technology. And like other upcoming technologies, it is expensive. Like putting in more natural gas infrastructure, Ireland awaits foreign companies to come in and build the equipment to help supply energy for which the ocean has a huge unlimited potential. We found solar power was in a similar test-and-see status. Just like in the U.S., the cost of solar panels has been decreasing, but limited funding hinders current development.
We learned that fracking (injection of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals deep into layers of rock to release natural gas) is also just initially being tested. Several experimental sites have reluctantly been given permits to explore the potential for larger scale fracking. Citizen groups in the Irish north especially have been quite vocal in their opposition due to evidence of water pollution and earthquakes seen in other fracking areas. In our conversations with the Irish people about sustainability and use of renewable energy sources, many were optimistically aware of solutions to live more sustainably on the land and leave less of a footprint for future generations. But many were also cautiously optimistic and somewhat patient about when these upgrades and ideas will come to their island nation, and especially how they were all going to be paid for.
Teaching and learning about environmental issues in Ireland was a great example of learning by being there. Information from a textbook gives a good basis for understanding the definitions and basic problems associated with each issue. Digging deeper to uncover the various pros and cons of an issue is key to not only more specific understanding of the issue, but also to see which groups of people are on each side and the reasons that drive their support of that side.
Living, working and conversing with Irish people made these issues come alive. For many of us, this direct connection to the people made asking questions and searching for solutions more of a direct process as well. Hopefully, with this type of exposure to Irish issues, these Loras students and I will better understand and be more involved in working toward solutions to environmental issues at Loras, in Dubuque, in our home towns and in our good ol’ U.S.