The flaws with Wednesday’s anti-renewables op-ed in the New York Times begin with the headline and continue through just about every paragraph. On second thought, perhaps the problems begin with the decision of the New York Times to run “The Gas Is Greener” in the first place. But let’s start with the headline.
“The Gas is Greener” may seem like a clever double entendre, referring as it does to wishful thinking and the alleged merits of natural gas as a relatively clean source of energy. But it fails on both counts. First, the entire essay is predicated on the notion that environmentalists are blind to the true costs of renewable energy, and Bryce promises to expose “deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement.” But it is my experience that most environmentalists who have devoted any time to considering renewable energy have a much more sophisticated and honest take on the costs of each option — on society, the ecosystem, and the economy — than those who resist the necessary transition.
To be fair, Bryce writes not all greenies are naive:
Not all environmentalists ignore renewable energy’s land requirements. The Nature Conservancy has coined the term “energy sprawl” to describe it.
But that’s it. The rest of the essay implies naivte and ignorance. To wit:
Nearly four decades ago, the economist E. F. Schumacher distilled the essence of environmental protection down to three words: “Small is beautiful.” In the rush to do something — anything — to deal with the intractable problem of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental groups and policy makers have determined that renewable energy is the answer. But in doing so they’ve tossed Schumacher’s dictum into the ditch.
But as usual for this brand of argument, he offers no evidence for this generalization. For an accurate assessment, all one has to do is read climatologist James Hansen, or activist Bill McKibben, or any number of learned renewable energy advocates, who have clearly anguished over which technologies offer the best hope for forestalling climate change and threaten the least ecological damage.
Second, the jury on natural gas is most definitely still out. At the moment, I’d have to say the cautionary principle leans heavily against it. Indeed, it is not hard to come up with some very industry-friendly assumptions that nevertheless still leave one with the conclusion that widespread use of natural gas will actually exacerbate global warming rather than mitigate it.
Where was I? Oh yes. The meat of Bryce’s argument.
Bryce contents that solar power takes up too much land. But he ignores the vast areas available on rooftops. Maybe California finds its deserts more attractive, but other countries, like Germany, understand that. He argues that wind turbines require too much steel, and insists that natural gas and nuclear power have smaller footprints. This ignores the environmental costs of mining uranium and the length of time it takes to bring a nuke online and or extract the gas without poisoning watersheds. In both cases, his analysis is flawed.
While it is true that wind and solar power will require resources, and extract a toll on the environment, it is just plain wrong to conclude that the total impact of widespread conversion to renewables would be anything near the existing impact of fossil fuels. Yes, there will be costs, but again, these are being considered. And yes, there are always those who haven’t thought through the whole thing. It is important not to jump on bandwagons without due deliberation. But only someone unfamiliar with the vigorous debates within the community that cares about climate change would argue that these issues aren’t getting the scrutiny they deserve. I suggest Bryce familiarize himself with the straw man fallacy before writing more on this subject.
And another thing: in his back-of-the-envelope calculation, Bryce assumes that renewable energy is no more efficient than that produced by fossil fuels. This is simply false. As many, including Delucchi and Jacobson, have written (in peer-reviewed journals, not just NYT op-ed pages), renewable-derived electricity is actually more efficient. As a result, conversion to renewables actually reduces the total demand. So you can’t, as Bryce does, just write things like this:
The state’s peak electricity demand is about 52,000 megawatts. Meeting the one-third target will require (if you oversimplify a bit) about 17,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity.
There’s more to criticize. But I think I’ve made my point. All without even mentioning the market-oriented think thank that employs Bryce.