Fallout from Nature Conservancy’s sprawl study by Chris Madison

Sen. Alexander over the last two weeks has charged that expanding wind and solar energy will cause energy sprawl and has instead called for the construction of 100 new nuclear power plants in the United States, and has also challenged environmentalists to rethink their opposition to nuclear energy.

Robert McDonald, one of the authors of the Nature Conservancy paper, meanwhile, recently reacted to Alexander’s campaign. He wrote, "(I)t’s unsettling sometimes to see the rhetorical uses others have found for this research, often far from its original context in a scientific journal. The energy sprawl paper does not mean that The Nature Conservancy is somehow against renewable energy generation. We believe strongly that increased renewable energy production will have to be one of the ways America begins to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The energy sprawl report simply shows that renewable energy production has the potential to take a significant amount of space, particularly biofuel production.”

Matt Wasson, director of programs for Appalachian Voices, a Boone, N.C.-based environmental organization, wrote, “The study didn’t actually measure the impacts of different energy technologies, but rather compiled estimates from a smattering of reports, fact sheets and brochures from government and industry sources in order to arrive at an acre-per-unit of energy figure for each energy technology. Those figures were then applied to the Energy Information Administration’s modeling of four climate policy scenarios under consideration by Congress.”

He added, “[T]he concept of energy sprawl, now that it has been associated with such a distorted picture of the impacts of wind, solar, coal and nuclear technologies, adds nothing but confusion and false impressions to the debate over climate. ‘Nature Conservancy says wind and solar are more harmful than coal’ is a talking point that will be repeated in mine permit hearings, utilities commission proceedings, letters to the editor and at coal rallies across the country for years into the future.”

He advised banning the "energy sprawl" buzzword from the lexicon. Good idea. But something tells me Sen. Alexander is not likely to let go of it.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander is continuing his campaign against renewable energy "sprawl" — and for nuclear energy. In a speech Monday before the environmental group Resources for the Future, Alexander called for building 100 new nuclear power plants rather than investing in renewable energy.

Referring to a recent Nature Conservancy study that attempted to quantify the land use impact of renewable energy, Alexander said, "The paper should serve as a Paul Revere ride for the coming renewable energy sprawl. "

He continued, "There are negative consequences, as well as positive effects, from producing energy from the sun, the wind and the earth. And, unless we are as wise in our response as the authors have been in their analysis, our nation runs the risk of damaging the environment in the name of saving the environment."

We should also be careful about facts. In the speech, Alexander asserts that today’s turbines are "50 stories high," and that one megawatt of wind requires "about 60 acres of land."

C’mon, Senator. Today’s larger turbines are about 30 stories high. And when a large wind farm is spread out across a large farm or ranch, it can average out to 60 acres per turbine. But 95-98% of that acreage is undisturbed, and can still be used for farming or ranching. (He gets a lot of other facts wrong; we’ll follow up in the next day or two.)

Curiously, Senator Alexander did not specify how he proposes to finance 100 new nuclear plants, in which states he would locate them, where he would get the water, or where he would store the waste.

Variability: WSJ Off the Track, Again

Recently, the Wall Street Journal carried a misleading article by Jeffrey Ball on wind energy’s variability and the issues that arise in integrating the electricity generated by wind with that from other power plants on the utility system. The following is a response from our in-house expert, Michael Goggin:

Quote :
Where to begin with pointing out the misleading statements in this article? I’ll start from the first sentence:

1. “For more than a century, producing power has been a matter of flipping a switch. Need more electricity? Fire up some fuel. Need less? Dial the flame back down.”

Actually, ensuring that electricity supply and demand stay in balance has always been a difficult balancing act. Demand for electricity varies by a factor of three or more over the course of a day and from season to season. Grid operators have to rely on weather forecasts to predict how many people will be running their air conditioners or electric heaters several hours or days in advance, and these forecasts are far from perfect. Operators also have to deal with unexpected outages of large coal and nuclear power plants, which can take 1,000 MW or more offline in a fraction of a second. Changes in wind or solar output are far more gradual and thus in many ways easier to deal with.

2. “Many states and countries are pledging to produce 20% or more of their electricity from renewable sources within about a decade. That will be a major stretch.”

"A major stretch?" Denmark is already at 20% wind power, Spain and Ireland are over 11%, and Germany is at 7%. Ireland’s government recently conducted a study that concluded there were no major challenges to obtaining 40% of its electricity from wind, a remarkable conclusion given that integrating wind power on small island power systems like Ireland is far more challenging than on massive interconnected power systems like we have in the U.S. Even the Bush Administration’s Department of Energy released a report in 2008 concluding that there were no technical obstacles to obtaining 20% of the nation’s electricity from wind.

3. “Currently, every wind farm and solar installation has to be backed up by a nearly equivalent amount of conventional fuel to keep the power grid running.”

This statement is meaningless, as every power plant on the power grid (whether gas, coal, nuclear, wind, or solar) is backed up by every other power plant on the grid. That’s one of the main reasons we have a power grid in the first place – so that if one power plant goes down, as all power plants do from time to time, there are other plants available to pick up the slack.

4. “Largely due to wind’s unpredictability, the thousands of wind turbines installed across the country collectively produced only 1.3% of actual U.S. electricity in 2008, the department’s figures show.”

This has nothing to do with wind’s unpredictability. Wind plants typically have a capacity factor of around 35%, which means that in a year they produce 35% of the theoretical maximum that the plant could have produced if it ran at 100% output all the time. While 35% may sound low, natural gas power plants typically have capacity factors of only around 10%, hydroelectric plants are often around 25-30%, and even coal plants typically only have capacity factors that are in the 60-70% range.

5. “[In reference to Texas] So, just as wind power unexpectedly plummeted, demand for power spiked.”

The gradual change in wind output that occurred in Texas over several hours on February 26, 2008, was nearly perfectly predicted by a pilot wind forecasting program that was unfortunately not yet fully operational but has since come online. In addition, the unexpected increase in electricity demand that the article briefly mentions was a far larger contributor to the mismatch between supply and demand. Finally, this event was relatively minor compared to real grid emergencies that do occur several times per year on average in Texas when a large coal or nuclear power plant experiences an unexpected outage.

6. Perhaps the only thing that this article does get right is the fact that a variety of tools, from advanced wind forecasting techniques to building upgrades to our power grid that are urgently needed anyway, are making the task of integrating wind even easier. Over the last decade many European countries have traveled the path of increasing renewable energy use that we are now embarking on. Perhaps the most important lesson they have learned is that the real challenge to using more renewable energy is not technical but simply convincing naysayers that it can be done.

Michael Goggin, American Wind Energy Association