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On June 8, 2011, Mr. Robert Bryce, author of the recently published Power Hungry, The Myth Of Clean Energy And The Real Fuels Of The Future, wrote an Op-Ed piece to the New York Times. In the piece, Mr. Bryce argues that the recently signed mandate requiring a 30% renewable portfolio standard places too high a burden on society. Mr. Bryce attempts a clever approach addressing considerations some sustainability advocates fail to consider.
Of note, I will be reading Mr. Bryce’s book and commenting on it shortly. While I do not agree with Mr. Bryce’s observations in his Op-Ed piece, he does raise essential considerations that any advocate for sustainability must address.
The two main issues that Mr. Bryce raises in his short Op-Ed are that renewable energy sources such as solar thermal and wind power require vast amounts of space to generate large-scale power. The other issue is that the manufacture of renewable power infrastructure requires vast natural resources. Mr. Bryce’s Op-Ed can be found here. Below is a critique of Mr. Bryce’s opinions.
Mr. Bryce presents an essential analysis of the costs of sustainability, however there are fundamental flaws in his discussion. Yes, the foundation of renewable energy must lie on the bedrock of physical and economic realities. But the existing foundation addresses Mr. Bryce’s concerns, and is still rock solid.
Mr. Bryce opens his analysis of renewable energy by addressing the need for space for solar and wind installations. Indeed, both of these energy options do require large amounts of space.
Regarding the needs of solar arrays, however, Mr. Bryce ignores his theme of “small is beautiful.” For example, in California, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative (signed into law by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2006) provides incentives for residential and small business solar installations on small roofs.
The initiative, and subsequent supporting legislation, show great success on many levels. The amount of government subsidies for solar roof installations is lower than in 2006 due to private competition lowering installation costs. New (and profitable) companies allow owners to install solar arrays without any money down. Then the company resells the energy generated from the roof – at a lower rate – back to the owner.
Even better, under AB 920, sponsored by Assembly Member Jared Huffman, and signed into law in 2009 (also by former Governor Schwarzenegger), homeowners or small businesses that own their solar arrays are paid cash by local utilities for the energy fed back into the grid. The energy is purchased by the utility at a wholesale rate, and sold by the utility at a retail rate – a win/win!
Large solar projects (such as Ivanpah that Mr. Bryce mentions) are essential, for immediate gains. However, Mr. Bryce’s apocalyptic vision of solar power plants blanketing the Mojave desert ignores the fact that we have plenty of surface area on small roofs ready for covering.
Indeed, homeowners and small businesses are not the only ones solving the problem of our foreign energy dependence. Big box stores such as Wal-Mart and Target have successful initiatives covering existing and future stores with solar arrays. In fact, according to the New York Times if one covers the entire square footage of every Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart roof in the United States, the coverage equals roughly 23 square miles – about the same size as the island of Manhattan. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/11/business/11solar.html)
Mr. Bryce also raises important concerns regarding wind power. Here, however, Mr. Bryce ignores the fact that most wind farms thrive out in the ocean. For example, the Atlantic Wind Connection (the electric transmission backbone announced by Google last year) is located 350 miles offshore. This infrastructure project shows not only massive private equity interest in renewable energy, it also shows sustainable energy can be out of sight and out of mind.
In his closing arguments, Mr. Bryce brings up the cost of materials and natural resources for manufacturing the hardware necessary to generate and transmit energy. This, too, is an essential consideration for all sustainable projects. However, the key is to look at long-term, or even short-term costs, not just immediate costs.
Perhaps more steel is used per megawatt to build a wind turbine when compared to the manufacture of a natural gas turbine, but how much steel and energy is then used over the lifetime of the natural gas turbine to deliver fuel? How many drilling rigs are needed? Pipelines? Trucks? Tankers?
A similar argument is often made when addressing the water consumed to make silicon for photovoltaic solar cells. Sure, water is needed for this hardware, but once the photovoltaic cell is in place the energy is produced with extraordinarily low maintenance.
As with any energy source, renewable energy has environmental dilemmas (e.g. pollution in manufacturing of hardware). These issues will take time to resolve, but at least Mr. Bryce’s concerns have solutions.
Let’s move forward with bipartisan vision. We can continue to use the same energy sources that destroy our planet and fund foreign nations that do not share our values. Or we can embrace new methods of energy generation that create jobs, provide a cleaner environment, and offer the independence of endless free fuel.
Photo by © 2010 Larry D. Moore.