Renewable Energy Inputs and Human Pessimism

by Brian McGraw on June 8, 2011

in Blog

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Today The New York Times ran two dueling opinion pieces featuring Robert Bryce, author of a number of books, and Tom Friedman, who chose this column to unleash his inner Paul Ehrlich. The latter column will make regular NYT readers anxious and depressed, the former will make them angry.

Bryce argues that though wind and solar farms do not produce emissions, they require a whole lot of land, significant natural resource inputs, and new transmission lines. He believes that these shortfalls are under appreciated by renewable energy proponents, and the scaling of renewable energy might have other environmental consequences. California appears to have plenty of land, but that is to meet a 33% renewables goal, which is unlikely to satisfy environmentalists, and California has much more land than other states. The takeaway is that all energy choices have their tradeoffs:

The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward: to have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans. Apart from the impact on the environment itself, few if any people could live on the land because of the noise (and the infrasound, which is inaudible to most humans but potentially harmful) produced by the turbines.

Friedman, on the other hand, penned a bizarre column foretelling a rapture-esque doomsday if humanity does not change its cancerous, consumption heavy ways:

You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

We will realize, he [Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption] predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”

Sounds utopian? Gilding insists he is a realist.

“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says. “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

It’s easy to get in the news through predicting doomsday (see here), but humanity has been forced to listen to this warning time and time again:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to “stretch” the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.  Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole.

Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society.  They will inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics, and economics of the 1960’s are dead.  As the most powerful nation in the world today, and its largest consumer, the United States cannot stand isolated.  We are today involved in the events leading to famine; tomorrow we may be destroyed by its consequences.

Paul Ehrlich, 1968

And yet humanity is still here, living longer, healthier lives than the past.



Mark June 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm

As a consultant who works in the energy industry, I agree with Mr Bryce that we need to find greener, more decentralized energy systems. However, I find that Mr. Bryce’s op-ed on renewable energy makes several errors so large and basic as to call into question his expertise and the apparent premise of his article – that gas and nuclear are superior energy sources based on environmental footprint.

1) Bryce makes the basic mistake of conflating capacity with energy. The California RPS calls for 33% of the energy to be generated from renewables, not 33% of the capacity. That means that of the roughly 275 terawatt-hours (TWh) California is projected to consume by 2020, ~90 TWh would come from renewables. The capacity factor (what percent of their nameplate capacity actually produces energy over a year) in California is about 35% for wind and 20% for solar. In other words, you need about 3 times the amount of wind power capacity and 5 times the amount of solar capacity to produce the given amount of energy. If we use the 50% wind/50% solar mix Bryce proposes, we get about 26,000 MW of solar and 15,000 MW of wind. In reality, about 1/3 of the RPS has already been fulfilled by wind, solar, geothermal and biomass plants. So you end up with about 27,000 MW of new build necessary to meet the requirement, about 60% more than Bryce inaccurately calculates. The fact that his innacurate calculation works against his argument doesn’t negate the fact that it exposes his lack of understanding of the basic terminology of the industry.
2) The California RPS allows imports. All of these renewables do not need to be sited in California. The renewable electricity can be imported (and is imported) from wind farms in states like Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Arizona where any number of Manhattans is a drop in the bucket. (Nevada = 4,800 Manhattans).
3) The land per turbine figure Bryce chose is from Texas – among the least land-constrained places in the country. Almost all wind farms in California use less land per turbine than the Roscoe wind farm. For example, a wind farm going up in Solano County, CA (Montezuma II) uses about 35 acres per MW vs. the 126 acres per MW that Bryce cites – about 25% as much land.
4) “Use of land” is a problematic definition. By Mr. Bryce’s definition – land is “used” if it has a wind turbine anywhere nearby. By this definition, natural gas uses just as much land as wind. For example, at the heart of shale gas country in Troy Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania – there is a natural gas well currently permitted for every 250 acres. (vs. one turbine for every 125 acres in the Texas example). Does that mean all of Troy Township is “used” by the gas drilling industry? Probably not. By the same token, not all of this land is “used” by renewables – the turbines and roads typically cover only about 2% of a project’s surface. Which, incidentally is why farmers love wind projects – they get paid but keep 98% of their land for farming.
5) Size of turbines: Bryce seems to have found this by googling it, and it is inaccurate. The vast majority of turbines in the U.S. are 1.5 to 2MW simply because we aren’t space constrained. There are about 15 projects in the U.S., equaling ~2% of total wind capacity, that use Vestas 3.0MW turbines. Bryce’s 4 MW turbines are limited to GE’s 4MW offshore machines that have never been installed in a U.S. project. Larger turbines are sometimes used in Europe — precisely because of the space constraints there.
6) Comparative use of steel in wind and natural gas: Bryce’s comparison neglects to account for the use of steel in the gas fields or the pipelines or the balance of the power plants that house his 9 ton turbines. Because gas wells run dry and new ones must be drilled to replenish them, this drilling steel is perhaps the major use of steel in the gas value chain. The oil and gas industry’s use of drilling pipe alone accounts for 2-3% of U.S. steel consumption.
7) Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is an argument against large, centralized physical plants and the bureaucracies that come with them. While large centralized wind and solar are certainly an imperfect step toward this ideal, gas and nuclear power are as bad or worse. Gas must be transported in pipelines that stretch thousands of miles. Uranium must be mined and processed far from population centers. Gas and nuclear plants are both large, centralized power sources. The regulatory regimes necessary for gas and nuclear power safety and pollution are more complex than those needed for wind.

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