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Jun 29, 2011

Honest Assessments of Our Energy Future


At long last, scientists, governments, and significant elements of the business community are in agreement that we can build a low-carbon, sustainable, global energy economy.  That was the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which released its Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources last month, stating that 80 percent of global energy needs could come from renewable energy by 2050.  The constraint in making this a reality is not technology, land area, or resources, but willpower.  The IPCC found that what is required is the leadership to coordinate the needed policy measures.

Unfortunately, misinformation is being propagated by interests favoring the status quo. The June 7, 2011, op-ed, The Gas is Greener by Robert Bryce in The New York Times is a sad example. Using rhetorical arguments and faulty calculations, Bryce argues that renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar are somehow more environmentally destructive than natural gas and nuclear energy.  This opinion is at odds with the analytic findings of the several hundred analysts who developed the IPCC report and the community of nations who reviewed and then endorse the report.

Can we build this new energy economy?  Consider the example of California, where detailed and extensively reviewed assessments have shown that with integration and coordination we can readily meet the mandate that one-third of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. In projecting the impact of this mandate, Bryce makes several errors, each substantially increasing his estimate of its difficulty. He first ignores the 18 percent of California electricity that already comes from renewable sources, and then inexplicably bases his calculations on peak historic demand rather than the total annual consumption that is subject to this mandate. This selective lens allows Bryce, like many nay-sayers, to overestimate new infrastructure requirements by over 400%. Moreover, both wind and solar are compatible with many other land uses and neither can be said to spoil the land they sit on in any way analogous to fossil fuel extraction or nuclear waste storage. The wind and solar industries face enormous market incentives to minimize their environmental impacts and both have impressive track records of ongoing innovation in this area.

Meeting a 33 percent renewable electricity mandate nationwide would require on the order of 800 square miles of total area–much of which could be on the tops of buildings or in the case of wind, integrated into existing farmland (as is already the case in many windfarms). This is less than twice the size of Edwards Air force base, and less than one third of the area of forest estimated by EPA to have already been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Critics of the green energy economy often omit key information from consideration in making arguments about the material requirements of energy technologies as well. Bryce, for example compares the steel used for construction of wind and natural gas turbines, neglecting to mention that a gas turbine is only a very small part of a natural gas facility. More importantly, natural gas has substantial fuel production and waste stream infrastructure and impacts. Studies from the EPA have demonstrated that ‘fugitive’ emissions associated with natural gas extraction can put its total global warming potential on par with coal, the dirtiest fuel in widespread use. In contrast, an operating wind turbine or solar panel requires no fuel inputs and creates no waste stream.

Those of us who have done the math and thus are convinced that a cleaner, safer, and more durable energy infrastructure is worth pursuing, and can be achieved, know that it will be built on a diverse platform of energy technologies. In all likelihood, this will include the natural gas and nuclear power that Bryce advocates, as well as solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources that he unconvincingly criticizes. What we need most of all is an honest discussion with clear life-cycle, or ‘cradle to grave’ criteria to evaluate the benefits, drawbacks, and roles of each technology and the policy best suited to achieving our societal goals. The most basic lesson from our national innovation and industrial capacity is that we will achieve that which we plan.  Clean energy exists as an option, if we choose to invest in it and to implement systems solutions

Daniel Kammen is the Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank, and is on leave from the University of California, Berkeley where he is the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy.Sam Borgeson studies low carbon energy infrastructure and Kevin Fingerman serves as vice-chair of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels.  Both are doctoral students in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Editor’s note: To read more about this topic, see "Renewable Energy's 'Footprint' Myth" by Amory Lovins in the upcoming summer 2011 issue of Electricity Journal.

Join the Discussion

Showing 1-9 of 9 comments

June 30, 2011

It's hard to have an HONEST assesment when there have ben subsidized energy like COAL, NUCLEAR, NATURAL GAS and OIL for over 30 years.
None of those sources have had to pay for the pollution and water they use, the spills they create or the wars for their rights to procure them.

How can most people know what the real cost is ?

Anonymous User

July 6, 2011

It is hard to imagine a transition away from coal, nuclear and natural gas until the electricty markets are fully deregulated. The barriers to entry are insurmountable under monopolistic investor owned utility structures. The utilities write the rules for state legislatures who then draft net metering laws and grid interconnect rules compatible with the desires of the utilities. In order to level the playing field, every producer of clean renewable energy should have open access to sell their excess capacity into the grid at market rates and get paid a check at the end of each month.

A modified version of the California ISO would help remove the barriers imposed by investor owned utilities and state legislatures that are beholden to them. Adding the check for excess capacity sold into the grid would open the flood gates to alternative energy development. This simple modification to the Cal ISO would further accelerate alternative energy development, which has always been the clear leader of innovation in this area. Hopefully, Governor Brown will make this adjustment before the end of his term.

I believe a properly structured ISO will end the need for direct subsidies for alternative energy. I part company with most people on this subject because the use of any subsidies, in my opinion, should be directed at end use energy efficiency where the quickest gains against climate change can be achieved at the least cost. In fact, there are significant savings on alternative energy that can be achieved from energy efficiency investment first. Investing heavily to reduce end use demand means a structure requiring a 4Kw pv system may only need a 2Kw system after a energy efficiency retrofit. Therefore, subsidies for alternative energy prior to energy efficiency retrofits are uncessarily wasting precious resources.

Consequently, the energy bill that should be sent to the President should include a national energy efficiency lending program funded by the U.S. Treasury to loan funds to all government, commercial, industrial and residential property owners for super efficient LED lighting, geothermal heating and cooling, solar thermal, energy star appliances, insulation, thermal windows and weather stripping. The funds will be repaid with the energy savings at a modest fixed interest rate set at the current 10 year T-Bill rate. The utilities would collect the the clients loan repayments by calculating the monthly energy savings and charging the full amount of the bill based on the prior year's bill until the loans are repaid. The property owners would see no change in their bill until the loans are repaid. In order to accelerate the repayment the alternative energy investment tax credit should be converted to an energy efficiency investment tac credit. Surging employment payroll taxes should be sufficient to cover the cost of theinvestment tax credit. One a property has been fully retrofitted, it would then be eligible for the alternaive investment tax credit.

The excpetion to this would be the implementation of state or regional ISO's, which may eliminate the need for the alternative energy investment tax credit.

July 7, 2011

If there were a sustainable alternative development model to suburbia, the only model currently available, and it was more attractive, affordable and prosperous than suburbia. It would rapidly deploy a network of local renewable energy generation. We already know how to do all that. For an idea towards a rapid, market-led, transition to our sustainable future check out www.livingsystems.com.au
Just an idea, hope it engages with you.

July 7, 2011

Please provide a reference for your 800 sq. mi. statistic.

July 7, 2011

Thanks for the info. I do appreciate having it. But while these pieces give me a bit of hope, they stress me out because they don't usually have advice on what we can do to effectively advance the issue. I get drained from reading things I agree with but feel powerless advance. Putting more songs in the hymn-book don't help. How do we effect change? How do we help mobilize people in a way that get's elected officials' attention or changes corporate behavior? Short of that, this just stresses me out in a different way.

July 8, 2011

I agree with much of what was said by the author, Daniel Kammen. I think more hydro and existing nuclear (not expanded facilities) should be included in the conceptual portfolio in order to form the base-load component for more variable solar and wind power, which if all balanced with demand-side controls offered via the Smart Grid, would provide a good starting point for what the future holds. If we were to consider using just currently existing non-carbon sources, and use only the amount of energy they provide, we would still have a great deal of electricity available with which to work. Then we could build upon that platform by expanding wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and other non-carbon energy extraction technology.

On a second point, it is not sensible to say that all the surrounding land upon which a wind turbine sits is occupied by the wind turbine itself, anymore than to say that all the land upon which a natural gas well is drilled is occupied by a natural gas project. The difference, of course, is that underneath the ground into which chemicals have been placed in order to frack the shale to produce natural gas, there is actual destruction, pollution, and permanent extraction of the one-time-use resources. That does not occur when a wind turbine runs. Plus, wind turbines are far more beautiful and pleasing visually than what they replace or displace: grotesque coal mines, mountainous ash heaps, grimy facilities, water pollution, acid rain, Black Lung disease, soot, etc.

As for solar, the more efficient CSP PV solar panels (28% or 28W of every 100 W) which track the sun not only increase the useful length of time each day they function, but use far less materials. Moreover, they offer the potential of integrating into the landscape with other uses, such as high value agriculture or even specialized habitat, and need not occupy the same space as do more conventional solar PV arrays.

That the New York Times offers its reader the shoddily calculated views Bryce provides is sad.

July 19, 2011

Anonymous, here is the calculation we used for the area of PV required for the US to achieve a 33% RPS (with credit due to Kevin Fingerman for working through this originally):

As you will see it is a back of the envelope sort of thing, but we believe that all the assumptions are reasonable to conservative. Assuming average 6.5 kWh/m2/day insolation (this can be found throughout the southwest - see NREL data) and 18% efficiency (better than this is available today, experimental cells have gotten well over 40%).

That means you get:
1.17 kWh/m2 day x 365 days = 427 kWh/m2 year
total US electricity use = 3,741 billion kWh/yr; a 33% RPS would be 1,235 billion kWh (2009, EIA)
(1.235 x 10e12 kWh total/427 kWh/m2)= 2.89 x 10e9 m2 = 2,890 km2 = 1,116 mi2.
We already have about 10% renewable capacity, so we estimate 778 mi2 for the 23% additional capacity required. Note that this is under the 800 mi2 that we quoted, but the auxiliary equipment, roads, etc. could push up to or beyond 800 mi2, while higher conversion efficiencies would drive the number lower. So we concluded the area was on the order of 800 mi2.


July 19, 2011


You might be interested in FERC's order 745, which compels the ISOs and RTOs to compensate demand reductions using the full location marginal price (LMP) of the demand offset. It has not taken effect (I'm told that PJM will be first), but prior to this ruling demand reductions were paid as the LMP - wholesale price, placing demand reductions at a significant economic disadvantage. The order is a major step towards placing demand reduction on a level playing field with generation and will presumably lead to new entrants and innovation in the efficiency and demand response industries. The key issue at the moment is that there is a trigger price below which, demand reduction is not compensated (to protect base load pricing) that will be determined separately by each ISO. If the trigger price is set too high, it will severely curtail the number of hours that demand reductions can be bid into the market. This process is ongoing is each separate ISO/RTO, so as an advocate of a level playing field you would do well to make your voice heard as they take comments.

The links are long, but these law blog entries cover the details as well as I've seen:



July 19, 2011

Mark G.-

The frustration you feel with the challenge of political/policy change is likely something that most people can relate to. The influence off lobbyists, special interests, and money in general over our political discourse is particularly discouraging. However, in a democracy, the people are actually in charge. These other powers are effective only to the extent that voters are persuaded by their half truths or too indifferent to get involved.

I would strongly encourage you to discuss these issues with people who do not reflexively agree with you, and before trying to correct information that you think is wrong, try to understand the logic and thinking behind it. I think most people consider themselves fair minded and evidence based, so it should be possible to find common ground. Persuasion is rarely accomplished by brute force and most people do ultimately look forward to a cleaner and more prosperous future. We need to stop triggering reflexive polarizing political reactions in favor of real dialog and your efforts in doing so would be a significant and tangible contribution that you could practice every day.