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.

Comments

  1. #1 Raging Bee
    June 9, 2011

    Good on ya for jumping on that bullshit in a timely manner. Big business has been financing a steady drumbeat of lies and propaganda for decades, and our response has almost never been robust enough to matter. Hopefully this article will get some traction; and maybe the less disciplined denialist trolls will highlight how lame and dishonest their faction’s rationale really is.

  2. #2 GregH
    June 9, 2011

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    Is it just me, or is there a very large point being missed in all of this: What about conservation? 25-30 years ago Amory Lovins was talking about applying basic conservation methods to easily save 10% of energy right off the top. Is there any evidence that we’ve done anything like that? Have we raised standards for residential heat loss, for example?

    But my question is, Why do these discussion always revolve around other sources of energy, when conservation has as many (if not more) economic and social benefits. (Yes, I know it goes against the grain in an economy predicated on eternal growth, but still.)

  3. #3 man of misery
    June 9, 2011

    I always loved Lovins’ comment that you could, indeed use nuclear power to generate electricity, just as you could use a chainsaw to cut butter.

  4. #4 CalF
    June 9, 2011

    Two things: (1) hydrocarbons are way too valuable a feedstock to waste merely burning. That’s what we’re going to miss most when they’re gone. (2) thorium.

  5. #5 Tedd63
    June 9, 2011

    RE: conservation

    There was an article in NYT today about a British company that has opened an office on the East Coast to re-insulate existing homes. Apparently 80% of British homes have been “re-insulated” to some extent(amazing, if true, but the Europeans have always been ahead in these areas), and they are looking for new markets.

    They have a thermal scan truck that can scan 1000 homes an hour looking for the most-likely customers.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/business/09subsidies.html?scp=1&sq=insulation&st=cse

    I imagine taking 10% of the top would be easy.

  6. #6 James Hrynyshyn
    June 9, 2011

    10%?Hell, conservation and energy efficiency can probably get us a 5o% cut.

  7. #7 MikeB
    June 9, 2011

    The article about the UK insulation company is interesting (although I’m not sure that Leicester could be described as ‘rust-belt’). In reality, UK insulation levels are nothing to boast about, the actual amount of insulation often being fairly minimal at best. As for the current government being really interested in the environment? LOL.

    There are huge effciencies to be made, and at low cost, but its not going to happen with the current government, because that would involve telling things to voters that they might not like to hear.

    The NYT op ed was a crock. Apparently using steel for windfarms is bad, but burning fossil fuel – good. Nuclear even better (and all that cement!) The stated size of the windfarm assumed that you couldn’t use the land around the turbines, when of course you can. And of course the assumption that natural gas is low carbon is made only by the gas industry itself (and see the new report pointing out how wrong this is).

    This is a classic variation on the ‘recyling is bad’ articles which pop up from time to time. Its just so sad that the NYT thought that it should be published in the first place.

    BTW – Watch out for a meme coming around the corner. UK energy firms have put up their prices recently (19% in one case). One of the ways they are trying to explain that rise away is because of the costs of subsidising renewables.

    Strangely enough, two of our less reputable newspapers splash this story on the front page this very day. This a very good takedown of the story http://fullfact.org/factchecks/energy_bills_prices_climate_change_taxes-2758 , but its interesting to note that Benny Peiser has moved on from merely having a problem with climate change to attacking anything which might help prevent it, while of course offering cover for large energy firms. I suspect this tactic will cross the Atlantic soon, if (judging by the NYT op ed) it hasn’t already happened.

  8. #8 Joffan
    June 9, 2011

    No doubt we should look for efficiency – but that’s a given, whatever the rest of the solution is. The question is how we generate that remaining demand, especially if we also increase demand by switching transport over to electricity – as I think we should.

    If only the choices were simple – ah well. The land use argument is weak; I think it can almost be ignored, really. Per MW, wind and solar installations do indeed take more steel and similar amounts of concrete compared to nuclear or natural gas, but steel and concrete are far from being the only variables to be considered (although they should not be neglected either, of course). The length of build time argument against nuclear is also very weak, once compared on a time-per-MW development basis. (Exercise: look up the development time of a moderate-sized solar farm and calculate time-per-MW, not forgetting capacity factor).

    Really the top reason to argue against gas is carbon dioxide. Gas is about half as emissive (is that a word?) as coal, the worst of the bunch. That is not even close to being “low” CO2 as I have heard claimed – it is still a large emitter. The second-top reason is that we have (or should have) much better things to do with methane and other light organics than burn them. The economic reason is that the future price is likely to be volatile, especially if security of supply becomes (any more) fragile.

    My own back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that for non-hydro renewables to supply one-third of the electricity for a system peaking at 52GW (-> est average 40-42GW), something like 45-48GW of installed renewable energy would be required.

    James, could you summarize for me why renewably-derived energy is intrinsically more efficient? I hadn’t heard that one before.

  9. #9 Gopiballava
    June 9, 2011

    @CalF:
    “hydrocarbons are way too valuable a feedstock to waste merely burning. That’s what we’re going to miss most when they’re gone”

    Any idea how much we need for the various non-fuel purposes? Or what price the market may bear?

    What I mean is: Oil as a pharmaceutical feedstock would, I suspect, be viable even at $1000/barrel. At that price, there’s a lot of difficult to extract oil available, and very few people will burn it in cars.

  10. #10 operkins
    June 10, 2011

    Bryce makes (at least) two fundamental errors in his analysis. First, he applies the 33% requirement to Peak Demand. Second, he implies that all of the requirement must be met with new capacity.

    (1) The law does not directly mandate anything regarding Peak Demand. It sets a goal of 33% renewables in retail electricity sales. Retail sales is a measure of consumption. It’s completely different from Peak Demand. In this regard, Bryce is guilty of an apples to oranges error.

    (2) It’s not a new law. It’s been on the books for about ten years. This recent legislation was an amendment which raised the goal from 20% to the 33% that Bryce cites. The goal is gradually implemented over the next ten years. For certain utilities, the 20% requirement is in effect now and has been met. In this regard, Bryce errs by overstating the marginal effect of the amended law.

    Finally, no one knows for sure how much new capacity will have to be built to meet the new goals. It is assumed that population and demand will grow over the next ten years. I’ve made some “back-of-envelope” calculations, and none are anywhere close to Bryce’s assertion of 17,000 MW.

  11. #11 Christophe Thill
    June 10, 2011

    If you compare energy sources, you have to compare them on all aspects. I suppose you can have accidents in a wind farm (a turbine might fall down in extreme wind) or a solar plant. And there are costs involved in dismantling it. Now, compare these costs with those of a nuclear accident, or the dismantling and decontamination of a nuclear site…

  12. #12 Wow
    June 10, 2011

    “(Exercise: look up the development time of a moderate-sized solar farm and calculate time-per-MW, not forgetting capacity factor).”

    Of course, taking down a nuclear power plant is a major undertaking, far far worse than the building of it.

    Did you remember to include that for nuclear?

    Also the load factor is very weak. The demand curve and the supply curve of renewables match far better and the shortfall much less of a problem thereby. A rough estimate is that you can reduce peak demand by 1/3 because comparing it against average output of a renewable removes the coherent peak of renewables to demand.

  13. #13 Doug Muder
    June 10, 2011

    Notice where Bryce is: the Manhattan Institute. That’s a Koch-brothers academic front.

  14. #14 Tom
    June 10, 2011

    I’m also curious about why renewables are inherently more efficient (and I’d prefer not to pay $19.95 to find out). Maybe something to do with transporting raw materials, or less transmission loss if it’s generated locally?

  15. #15 jay
    June 10, 2011

    For powering the grid, solar and wind are seriously deficient. You need predictable power, and controllable power on demand 27/7. The infamous brownouts of a few years ago occurred when capacity came up just a couple of percent short, imagine a 15% drop.

    Solar does not work at night, very poorly in cloudy weather and significantly reduced in winter. Wind varies from low to high (sometimes over a wide area at once) and 15-20% changes within minutes are very common.

    All this requires huge overcapacity, plus a network providing power transmission from places where it’s available (even the other side of the world in the case of solar — can you say ‘energy dependency?’). The grid is far, far from being ready for this kind of load, and the political as well as practical considerations are stupendous.

    The only other alternative is hot spares, i.e. conventional generation ready to kick in, but it’s not an easy process. You cant just start up a big generator the way you would a car… they take hours, even days to bring online… so the alternative is keeping them running, all the time. For all their sounding nice in theory, when used as more than a small supplement, current ‘renewables’ are more of a drag on the grid than a help.

  16. #16 Wow
    June 10, 2011

    “For powering the grid, solar and wind are seriously deficient.”

    ‘fraid that’s a load of BS.

    Even if it were right, though, we aren’t powering the grid, we’re powering the homes and businesses.

    “Solar does not work at night”

    And demand is low at night. I guess we could, oh, I don’t know, use some form of, say, WIND, which does blow at night, or a storage method like, say molten salt to allow the low night-time load to be met with solar.

    “Wind varies from low to high (sometimes over a wide area at once) and 15-20% changes within minutes are very common.”

    And a power station can be (and should be able to be) cut off in a fraction of a second. That’s the equivalent of a large area of wind power.

    So I guess nuclear isn’t an option either, for power…

    “All this requires huge overcapacity”

    No, you’re thinking of nuclear again, where you can’t respond quickly to transients and therefore have an overabundance of power at night and an inability to provide for short-term peaks in the day.

    Your sob story makes out that electricity provision is impossible.

    Reality disagrees.

  17. #17 Wow
    June 10, 2011

    “Maybe something to do with transporting raw materials,”

    Mostly that.

    Sunlight travels itself and you don’t have to mine the wind, it comes right to you. As for tides, just wait and twice a day, you’ll get it.

    Also when you need more energy is during the daytime (when the sun is out), when it’s hot (and the sun is in a clear sky) and less in the winter (as long as you’re not pissing your money through the walls by not insulating them).

    Windy weather usually means a lot of clouds, so when the sun is weak, you have a fair amount of wind power available.

    So the demand varies throughout the day and the renewables vary much more in line with them. Unlike nuclear or large coal fired stations which take a lot of time to change power supply and where combustion or nuclear decay don’t vary. Meaning you have to have enough supply for peak (or near enough to make the difference up from pumped storage or fast-reacting gas power) and run them all at at least idle rate 24/7.

    That means that your peak power from solar/wind should be allied with roughly the peak power available rather than the nominal nameplate (which averages over windspeeds expected) which is lower than peak for renewables.

  18. #18 jay
    June 10, 2011

    “Even if it were right, though, we aren’t powering the grid, we’re powering the homes and businesses.”

    Homes may be able to take some erratic changes in power, business normally much less so. To make a serious dent in energy usage, not just feel good demos, you need to be able to supply the grid. Cities, for example simply do not have nearly enough roof space to support their energy requirments.

    –”And demand is low at night. I guess we could, oh, I don’t know, use some form of, say, WIND, which does blow at night, or a storage method like, say molten salt to allow the low night-time load to be met with solar.”

    Wind sometimes blows at night (much of the world is in areas that go weeks without much wind, so all wind power pretty much needs to be imported). Ideas like molten salt may work in a few isolated areas, but there simply is no practical way to make that store enough energy for the country at night. period. Many parts of the country would not even have enough consistent local solar to power such a scheme.

    –”And a power station can be (and should be able to be) cut off in a fraction of a second. That’s the equivalent of a large area of wind power.”

    I’m not sure where that quote came from. When wind drops, when clouds come in, you have significant drops in power (15-30%). You need to make that up. A few homes with solar panels simply get it from the grid (or do without), when the whole grid is powered that way, you don’t have that option.

    –”No, you’re thinking of nuclear again, where you can’t respond quickly to transients and therefore have an overabundance of power at night and an inability to provide for short-term peaks in the day.”

    There is not an overabundance at night, predictable load changes allow units to be brought off line, service is practical under those circumstances. When wind stops, you have problems if you’re depending on it. And there is even less ability for solar or wind to suddenly increase capacity as power requirements change. If electric autos become a major force, that nightime lull will disappear.

    –”Your sob story makes out that electricity provision is impossible.”

    It’s not a sob story. It’s just the realization that, regardless of their superficial appeal, so-called renewables are not remotely take over our energy requirements. Not really a bad thing. We can fuel the world.

  19. #19 Joffan
    June 10, 2011

    Wow: You will need to explain how the length of time for decommissioning a nuclear power plant is relevant to the response to climate change. As far as I can see, it is just a random derogatory remark, far from the serious standard of debate required on climate change.

    And as I say I would welcome a coherent explanation of why electricity from renewables is described as intrinsically “more efficient”. Matching demand curves doesn’t really alter my calculation above; a current peak of 52GW will still imply an average power demand of 40ish GW, and supplying one-third of that will still require about 45GW of non-hydro renewables. Your alternative calculations are welcome.

  20. #20 feralboy12
    June 10, 2011

    “Solar does not work at night”

    I have it on good authority that the sun does in fact continue to shine even when it’s dark where you are.
    There is no shortage of space in…space.

  21. #21 James Hrynyshyn
    June 11, 2011

    Joffan: It’s really quite simple. Follow the link and you’ll see if you have the patience for the talk. Short answer: nukes time five times as long to bring on line as renewables. So there’s upwards of 12 lost years during which emissions continue to rise. 12 years we can’t afford to lose.

  22. #22 Joffan
    June 11, 2011

    Sorry, James, I was asking you for a summary of more-efficient-renewables concept. The link on that is a paper that doesn’t put that idea on the (free) abstract, anyway.

    As I point out above, the “too slow” argument is bogus, as can be seen reckoning on rate of power addition. It also implicitly claims, wrongly in my opinion, there will be no more climate problem, no more greenhouse gas reduction required, in say ten to twenty years time.

    The TED debate, if that’s what you were directing me to, was not wildly impressive on both sides, and the nuclear weapons nonsense from Jacobson was positively stupid. But that was not especially surprising given the highly adversial structure.

  23. #23 Ken Fabos
    June 11, 2011

    feralboy12 – a question I’ve put to other advocates of space based solar and never received an answer – if it’s possible to beam energy in quantity from space to Earth, why isn’t it possible to beam energy from one location on Earth, into space and back down somewhere else? ie a global energy grid. Even if Solar on Earth only operates even 25% of the time down here I expect solar up there would be much more than 4 times more expensive.

    As an aside I get the distinct impression the strongest advocates of Space based solar are much less interested in solving problems here on Earth than developing the infrastructure to colonise space. Personally I believe if we fail the global challenges we currently face here on Earth we will not be in any position to successfully colonise anywhere else.

  24. #24 Wow
    June 13, 2011

    “Wow: You will need to explain how the length of time for decommissioning a nuclear power plant is relevant to the response to climate change”

    Sorry, why should I have to do that when that was the response to someone talking about the EXPENSE of supply from cradle-to-grave?

    “And as I say I would welcome a coherent explanation of why electricity from renewables is described as intrinsically “more efficient””

    Do you want to explain what you mean by “more efficient”? 1 kWh is the same produced by renewables, fossil fuels or cats rubbing past amber.

    If it’s a case of how much nameplate power you need for fossil fuels vs renewables, then I’ve already explained twice. You may just be hard of thinking, though.

  25. #25 Wow
    June 13, 2011

    “Homes may be able to take some erratic changes in power, business normally much less so.”

    Who cares? You have to show that your hated renewables produce erratic changes in power.

    Hint: they don’t. But try showing some proof otherwise.

    “Wind sometimes blows at night ”

    Offshore breezes.

    “much of the world is in areas that go weeks without much wind, so all wind power pretty much needs to be imported”

    France had to import from Germany (who produced an excess with a large input of rewnewable power) because nuclear power stations go down and you lose 100% of the power they produce.

    Again, your diatribe would be proof that the supply of electricity countrywide is impossible.

    Reality disagrees.

    “Ideas like molten salt may work in a few isolated areas”

    Why would that be? Does salt disappear if you take it too far inland or something? Or does it not retain heat in Utah?

    “Many parts of the country would not even have enough consistent local solar to power such a scheme.”

    Rubbish.

    “When wind drops, when clouds come in, you have significant drops in power (15-30%). ”

    You also have a significant drop in demand.

    “There is not an overabundance at night”

    So your power company sells you cheap economy rate at night out of the goodness of their hearts?

    Rubbish.

    They even produce empty loads to drop power off when production is too high.

    “It’s just the dogmatic religion that, regardless of their superficial appeal, so-called renewables are not remotely take over our energy requirements.”

    Fixed that for you.

    Renewables can easily cover the energy requirements of the earth.

  26. #26 Joffan
    June 13, 2011

    Wow, the discussion on length of time to build various power options is concerned with the ability to respond to climate change in as timely a manner as possible. Decommissioning timelines have nothing to do with that assessment. Expense was not the subject under discussion.

    Renewables being intrinsically more efficient for electrical supply than was the claim in the top article, just above the final quote there. Your previous waffling and general abuse of commenters on this issue did nothing to explain the claim.

  27. #27 Wow
    June 13, 2011

    “Wow, the discussion on length of time to build various power options is concerned with the ability to respond to climate change in as timely a manner as possible.”

    True, but still doesn’t have anything to do with the post I was responding to which was about the cost of exploiting renewable vs nuclear power.

    Here, in case you’re unable to find it, is the message:

    “(Exercise: look up the development time of a moderate-sized solar farm and calculate time-per-MW, not forgetting capacity factor).”

    Which you’ve also been told build-up being 12x longer for nuclear, but you also need to pay and clear the way out for the old nuclear power before you can get all your nukes out there.

    “Renewables being intrinsically more efficient for electrical supply than was the claim in the top article, just above the final quote there”

    And that then is the claim I answered.

    If English isn’t what you need and only pictures can help you understand, then look here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llIbjC49Fjs

    “did nothing to explain the claim.”

    I explained the claim.

    You just didn’t like the answer.

    If your demand varies, you need to cover the peak. If the variation in demand changes faster than your supply and/or out of synch with demand, then you must have oversupply. If your supply varies with your demand curve and in synch, then you don’t need any oversupply.

    For a supply that is between those two (such as renewables), you need less oversupply.

    It isn’t rocket science, but you’ve just GOT to whine like a petulant child. Grow up.