Sunday, May 2, 2010

Energy Sprawl

The Nature Conservancy calls the renewable energy boom “Energy Sprawl” and for good reason. I believe that in the wake of our national rush to develop renewable energy in the 21st Century, we may one day look back to realize that the loss of wildlife habitat due to renewable energy projects may be an ecological disaster on scale with the near extinction of the American Bison in the 19th Century.

First, allow me to digress and examine the fundamental reason for this new renewable energy boom—global warming or climate change. For the sake of flimsy science, virtually no effect on the future average temperature of the globe, and at great cost to our economy, we are being asked to replace reliable and cheap electricity from fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar even though they are neither reliable nor capable of generating the nation’s minimum demand for electricity.

Fossil fuels provide well over half of the nation’s electricity and coal-fired power plants currently generate about 45%. There are sufficient and proven coal reserves in the United States to continue that level of consumption for several centuries. The United States has about 25% of the world’s coal reserves and the energy equivalent of the U.S. reserves exceeds that of the world’s supply of recoverable oil. We have the technology now to burn coal virtually emission free, save the carbon dioxide that we have suddenly decided is a “pollutant” despite the fact that CO2 is as essential to life as oxygen and water. And, unlike renewable energy sources such as wind and solar that only generate electricity when the wind blows or the sun shines, coal-fired plants can operate 24/7.

But, here is the real kicker, the rest of the story as Paul Harvey says. Wind and solar projects impact huge amounts of acreage thus altering or destroying habitat for a wide variety of wildlife from mammals to insects, from reptiles to birds.

For instance, a proposed 250-megawatt (MW) dry-cooling, parabolic trough, solar thermal, electric power plant facility on Bureau of Land Management land approximately 5 miles west of the city of Ridgecrest, CA, will disturb 1,944 acres. There are nearly a dozen proposed solar generation projects being considered for the Mojave Desert at this time and their acreage impacts range from 2,000 to nearly 10,000 acres each with a generating potential of 300 to 1,000 MW for each plant. By comparison a single coal-fired power plant generating from 300 to 1,000 MW rarely impacts more than 100 acres.

Much is said about the negative impacts of mining coal, not the least of which is the impact on humanity when tragic mining accidents kill dozens of miners as recently happened in West Virginia. However, most of the United States Reserves of coal are in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana. The coal seams are huge, close to the surface, and operations there have virtually no adverse impact on resources or the habitat. Reclamation is ongoing and habitat is restored to as good or better condition than before the mining activity.

There was a hue and cry from the environmental community when the Jonah Natural Gas Field was being developed in the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming a few years back. The field is about 30 by 50 miles, but the impacted acreage is only about 21,000 acres. The really staggering fact about this field is that it contains about 10.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. There is virtually no place on earth where you can find so much energy in such a confined space and produce it with so little adverse impacts on the resources. And when the field has played out, it will all be reclaimed to the point where it will be difficult to tell that anything happened on the site. Presumably, solar plants and wind farms and their impact on the land go on forever.

Wind farms also occupy large tracts of land in the tens of thousands of acres. While the footprint of the towers themselves are small, there are extensive road systems and transmission line requirements that all lead to wildlife habitat loss. By far and away, the biggest impact wind farms have on wildlife though is that they serve as virtual meat grinders for migratory birds, eagles, and bats. While wind turbine blades appear to move slowly, because of the blade sizes ranging from 130’ to 300’, the resulting speed of the tip of the blade can be as high as 180 mph. And of greater consequence, the towers are placed such that the blades are above the tree top level which is where the highest concentration of bird traffic exists as well.

Of equal concern to many people is the aesthetic impact of wind farms where once panoramic vistas are now being cluttered with an array of towers and spinning propellers. This of course is highly subjective as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I remember the first two proto-type commercial wind turbines that once stood near Medicine Bow, WY. Although romanticized in Owen Wister’s classic, The Virginian, there is not much to see at Medicine Bow and the wind can really blow there. It was always fun to see who could spot the huge towers first and I was disappointed when they were torn down about 10-15 years ago and sold for scrap metal. Then there is the Cape Winds Project that has been on the drawing boards for nearly a decade. Proposed to be built in the Nantucket Sound near Cape Cod, MA, this clean, renewable source of energy has been vigorously opposed by the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation because they do not want to see the wind mills on the horizon. Yes, the same people who decry the use of fossil fuels, oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope of Alaska, and who want to enact a carbon tax to raise your utility bill. Oh, they want more renewable sources of energy alright, just not in their back yard.

Renewable energy has a place in our energy future. I am for it, but not at the expense of every other form of energy and especially not at the risk of losing fossil fuel energy. More to the point, I believe we need to find ways to issue permits for many forms of energy development, including nuclear. But, unfortunately, we have as a nation moved from the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) syndrome to the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). The permitting processes should not be a means of just saying “No” to everything, but in the interest of conservation and fairness, we should apply the same standards for impacts on wildlife and habitat to all forms of energy development.

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