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When Renewables Destroy Nature

Biofuel cost and nature

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

Many have argued that the problems associated with plant-based renewable energy are anomalous. Biomass may have its problems, the story goes, but a fully renewable energy system, with prominent roles for solar and wind power, will be good for the environment.

But in the first article from a forthcoming issue of Breakthrough Journal, Will Boisvert argues that bioenergy’s devastating impact on nature is typical of renewables, not exceptional. A world powered primarily by renewables, Boisvert writes, is unlikely to be environmentally friendly at all.

Consider that of the four renewable energy sources with an appreciable share of the market—large-scale hydroelectric dams, biomass, solar, and wind—the two that have scaled most significantly, hydro and biomass, are attracting intense opprobrium as the devastating consequences of their widespread deployment become impossible to ignore.

At scale, solar and wind would also cause considerable environmental damage. Both have large land footprints, and due to their intermittency they require backup, which usually comes from environmentally damaging power sources such as biomass or coal. As Germany has shifted from nuclear to solar and wind power, its brown coal consumption has risen to its highest level since 1990.

Indeed, part of what’s behind the continued support for biomass, despite its evident environmental impacts, is its ability to back up wind and solar. “In Germany, for example, wind and solar generation frequently collapses for days on end during calm and cloudy spells,” Boisvert notes. “So biomass must step into the breach. Reliability is why just about every renewables plan carves out a prominent share for biomass and biofuels.”

But beyond the practical need, bioenergy keeps popping up in green energy plans because it is, at bottom, the archetypal expression of ecology ideology. Dams, palm oil plantations, wind farms, and solar arrays all convert natural energy flows carried by water, sunlight, and wind into useful energy. The objective of plans to run the world primarily, or entirely, on renewable energy is to reintegrate human society into the natural energy flows of the planet.

The problem is that such efforts to harmonize society with nature tend to be bad for both. “For most of human history,” Boisvert notes, “biomass – burned or fed to draft animals – was the main source of energy, and the cutting, growing, and hunting of it has always had severe environmental repercussions. Early modern Europe was extensively deforested to get wood for heating and charcoal for metallurgical fuel…”

Against the vision of renewables having a light footprint on the land, Boisvert notes, “The renewable energy paradigm requires an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape: lining every horizon with forty-story wind turbines, paving deserts with concentrating solar mirrors, girdling the coasts with tidal and wave generators, and drilling for geological heat reservoirs; it sees all of nature as an integrated machine for producing energy.”

Ultimately, if we want to save more nature we must leave more of it alone, not harness it to power a human population of 7 going on 9 billion. “Stewardship of the planet requires that we continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems,” Boisvert writes, “and ecosystems from us.”

Responses welcome.

Photo Credit: Biofuels and Costs to Nature/shutterstock

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Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Feb 27, 2014 8:40 pm GMT

Interesting perspective. I share Boisvert’s view that high penetration renewable energy will probably rival current high penetration fossil fuels in terms of environmental impact. The large land footprint of wind turbines, solar panels and energy crops is one thing, but arguably the largest concern is the enormous amount of material and energy intensive storage and the enormous HVDC supergrids that will be required to balance the intermittent output. 

If the current situation of 2% non-hydro renewables and 87% fossil fuels ever reverses, we may well long back to the good old days. Not only will the environmental impacts of renewables be very large, but the impacts of fossil fuels will suddenly appear very small. An interesting little experiment about this is to Google “wind protest” and “coal protest” and see which gets the most hits while keeping in mind that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and supplies 30 times the energy that wind supplies.

Fossil fuels are not the problem, the enormous rate at which we burn fossil fuels is. Unfortunately, this problem is set to get much bigger as 6 billion developing world citizens strive towards western fossil fueled materialism…

BTW, does Boisvert give some more specifics about how we might “continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems and ecosystems from us”?

Thomas Gerke's picture
Thomas Gerke on Feb 27, 2014 10:27 pm GMT

A very shallow and poorly researched article by the BTI. It doesn’t really provide any insight nor anything new in my opinion. The authors pretend to be knowledgable by building their thesis as a counter argument to a strawmen they themselves build. 

The main strawmen of most of the BTIs publication appears to be the tiresome stereotyping of everyone that disagrees with their fav. technology as unrealistic/naive/unscientific/emotional/… 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 28, 2014 12:52 am GMT

A “The glass is half empty” article.

A “The glass is half full” discussion might conclude our primitive biotechnology can and should be greatly improved upon. The scenes of mass starvation are gone. And properly managed biotechnology might be among our best tools to save Nature.

One consistent error; deforestation was not caused by using firewood. A living tree root will almost invariably sprout new shoots. Deforestation was usually caused by cattle grazing, then plowing after about a decade. We do need competent regulatory oversight without the political garbage.

Biotechnology is like aging. Horrible, except for most other options.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Feb 28, 2014 2:19 am GMT

Not being able to take millions of years of plant life from a crude petroleum product?  GENOCIDE!!!!!!!!!

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Feb 28, 2014 3:29 am GMT

Schalk, you have identified one of the key variables that will make transitioning the world to non-fossil fuels extremely challenging: population (and growth).  Yes, as the current 6 billion Developing World Citizens work diligently towards achieving the same living standards as Developed Countries’ Citizens, the goal to displace substantial fossil fuels with non-fossil fuels will be increasingly difficult; not to mention the physical footprint impacts on current ecosystems.  But when you also take into account the growth in population (likely a +2.4 billion by 2050, primarily in Developing Countries) the problem statement continues to grow substantially.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 28, 2014 4:03 am GMT

does Boisvert give some more specifics about how we might “continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems and ecosystems from us”?

Yes, I’ll give you a hint: it’s a proven solution that is already widely used in the real world, and at country scale.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 28, 2014 4:30 am GMT

Bio-energy is truly the weak link that is undermining all of renewable energy.  The energy per unit area really is astoundingly bad, at about 0.5W/m^2=> 2000 per GW,(according to D.MacKay).

But if we put aside bio-fuels, and adopt a more versatile energy carrier, ammonia, the sustainability problem is not quite so bleak.  Compared to cellulosic biofuels, a given amount of land can annually yield about 5x more energy per acre when making ammonia from wind power (and the wind farm can share land with other agricultural users), and 30 times more making ammonia from solar.

When used with solar and wind power, ammonia provides the only credible means to provide large scale weekly or seasonal energy storage.

Of course ammonia fuel also is compatible with other primary energy sources such OTEC and geothermal, and even nuclear, which allows even lower impact on ecosystems and scalability to the highest population densities.


The key to ammonia’s scalability is that in addition to energy, the only raw ingredients needed to make it are water and air (the formula is NH3; unlike systems which aim to make hydrocarbon fuel, the amount of air require to make ammonia is small: 1.3 kg of air per kg of fuel).  When burned, ammonia releases only water vapor and nitrogen (which is 80% of the air).

Here’s a good intro to ammonia fuel:  NH3 – The Other Hydrogen

see also:  

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 28, 2014 9:25 am GMT

Bio-energy is truly the weak link that is undermining all of renewable energy.  The energy per unit area really is astoundingly bad, at about 0.5W/m^2=> 2000 per GW”

Nathan, I would say crops sepecifically grown for bioenergy… Germany is running their energywinde at the moment but an interesting outcome of this is that a comparison of sorts can be made between the effectiveness of biomass, wind and solar in how they reduce CO2 and cost. This is laid out in the AGEE stats specifically ‘development of renewable energy sources in Germany’ series. On all counts of investment needed, subsidy required, people employed (less is better), revenue generated, wind or biomass far outscore solar. I would suggest that solar is the weak link for renewables in Germany.

Now I am not necessarily advocating biomass as an energy source as even if Germany could use all its biomass for energy needs, it would probably only account for at best 15-20% of their energy needs and some of that is specifically grown. I am just trying to point out that biomass can be useful if managed correctly and the corn ethanol issue could certainly have been managed much better. Robert Rapier has good views on this.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 28, 2014 2:51 pm GMT

What would be the environmental impact of scaling up ammonia production by a factor of 100?  That depends on the leakage rate.  The rate today is about 100%, since we dump it directly into the biosphere as fertilizer.  

I would expect ammonia fuel to have a leakage rage under 0.1%.  Most ammonia will be spilled on land, and will evaporate or be consumed in the soil.  Airborn ammonia tends to return to the ground in rain (I would think at much lower concentration than agricultural run-off).  So a ballpark estimate ranks it as more benign than fertilizer.

But remember that efficiency and conservation complement (rather than compete with) all energy systems.  For alternative global scale energy systems, the primary option is fossil fuel (with the continuing oil wars and the trend toward unconventional supplies like deep off-shore, tar sands, and coal-to-liquids).

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 28, 2014 4:22 pm GMT

The sheer inadequacy and even counterproductivity of biofuels and – to a lesser extent – biomass has been very well established for quite a long time, recently again in a very accessible way by the director of the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, Noble Laureate, Dr. Hartmut Michel:

Of all the pseudo-green boondoggles that have come and gone, biofuels (and biomass, IMO) is still the champion. It appears to be little more than a handout for agrobusiness on the one hand, and (another) greenwash for the coal sector on the other (i.e. ‘biomass co-firing’ makes coal plants ‘green’) 


Ian Crawford's picture
Ian Crawford on Feb 28, 2014 5:48 pm GMT

Geothermal Power plants have a tiny environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emmissions are minimal. 

Ian Crawford's picture
Ian Crawford on Feb 28, 2014 5:49 pm GMT

Geothermal Power plants have a tiny environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emmissions are minimal. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 28, 2014 7:24 pm GMT

Thanks for the link, Joris. Nice reading competent people using basic Biophysics.

One of his fundamental mistakes however, corn sugar fermentation is used to make food – not fuel. Ask your reference where all the new protein and nucleic acids and fats are coming from to serve fried chicken in China. Ethanol is a waste product from growing a yeast culture – and it happens to enhance combustion in car engines. I’m not sure the food industry really cares about ethanol – but like cow manure, what do you do with it? There is NO WAY to produce proteins, nucleic acids, and fats to feed the world using traditional agriculture.

I’m delighted to see reference to CO2 limits / photon spectral limits / C3 photosynthesis and biohydrogen and combustion efficiency. These are among the concepts needed in “solar energy stored in fuel.” (I used to be able to say “solar fuel” but I think a German company has that name now. A “boondoggle” until you claim it, I guess.)

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 1, 2014 4:25 pm GMT

Yields are in the 15,000 gal per year per acre range. (I dont’ think your amonia systems can match that.)”

As of today, the only system that beats ammonia for energy per unit area is hydrogen (which has limitations due to storage difficulty).  This is easy to prove, since solar PV beats every known system for solar energy conversion efficiency, beating plant based systems by an order of magnitude.   (Of course nuclear power offers enormously higher power per unit area, for communities that accept it.)  Conversion of electricity to hydrogen is around 70% efficient, and hydrogen to ammonia is around 80% (with lab scale electricity to ammonia synthesis using reverse fuel cells having been demonstrated already with efficiency near that of hydrogen).

CO2 is becomming the big feed stock for microbes…cuts your GHG emissions in half.

Ok, but the human world is dominated by positive feedback, for example the dominant suppliers win the affection of the people and the politician, so that the market can’t be shared with alternatives.  As a result, the only stable low fossil fuel system is a zero fossil fuel system.  My claim is that the “renewables with fossil backup” system is really designed to prevent phase-out of fossil fuel.  I would say the same about “fossil with CO2 capture and reuse”.

For this reason, I favor renewables and nuclear with dispatchable fuel synthesis, as this system requires no fossil fuel backup.  Of course this system will be accepted first in nations which lack a domestic fossil fuel industry (due to positive feedback), however I believe there are many such nations.  All it will take is for one of the superpowers to demo the technology and adopt it  in enough niche markets (e.g. heavy duty truck, trains, combined heat & power,  off-grid renewable backup, etc) so that the ammonia fuel industry becomes larger than the fertilizer industry.

Of course I am open to alternative syn-fuels.  No doubt there are some hydrocarbon-based fuels that that are very nice; but for them I am awaiting an inexpensive and environmentally benign carbon source.  Baseload hydrogen from pipelines will be important to industry, but many fuel applications require convenient storage which H2 can’t provide.  Recyclable metallic fuels like powdered boron or zinc may be useful in applications that have historically used solid fuel (trains, ships, power plants), but are not well suited to cars and trucks.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 1, 2014 6:33 pm GMT

Rick, 40% of corn sugar fermentation in the U.S.  is for the express purpose of making ethanol:

Thanks to Washington, 4 of every 10 ears of corn grown in America — the source of 40 percent of the world’s production — are shunted into ethanol, a gasoline substitute that imperceptibly nicks our energy problem…

Corn is hardly some minor agricultural product for breakfast cereal. It’s America’s largest crop, dwarfing wheat and soybeans. A small portion of production goes for human consumption; about 40 percent feeds cows, pigs, turkeys and chickens. Diverting 40 percent to ethanol has disagreeable consequences for food. In just a year, the price of bacon has soared by 24 percent.



Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 1, 2014 10:24 pm GMT

Completely untrue, Bob. Nothing can or does eat some of what looks like high yield corn today. Have you ever seen a flock of crows feasting on a corn field, or a herd of deer making a corn field “home sweet home?”

“Fermentation” is growing yeast, not making ethanol. Without care, you would get acetic acid (vinegar) instead. The yeast is a culture like other cultures adapted to make cheese. A big export market for this enhanced feed product. Everybody isn’t stupid.

Your dad would have understood. I’m not a microbiologist.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 2, 2014 3:15 am GMT

Nadir, I have not been ignoring the ammonia warning from you and others.  I read all the presentation from the annual Ammonia fuel Association conference, paying particular attention to any mention of safety and environmental issues.  So far, all the presenters who actually work with ammonia seem to believe the safety challengers are manageable.  Few if any of the presenters appear to have any vested financial interest in ammonia’s acceptance; most seem to be researchers whose labs are more aligned with hydrogen, fossil fuel, or renewable energy.

For example, this presentation by an Italian team working on a plug-in hybrid truck with an ammonia fueled ICE, had this to say on slide 18:  “NOx is the only meaningful pollutant found in the exhaust emissions … However, NOx emission is not a problem since the use of a SCR is eased by the presence of ammonia onboard.”

Similarly, this presentation, Renewable NH3 and Direct NH3 Fuel Cells slides 13-22, gives results for a commercial fuel cell, intended for use with natural gas, when it was run on ammonia: “No residual NH3, or NOx was detected in the stack effluent gas, or effectively zero emissions operating on ammonia.  NH3 performance surpasses natural gas due to lower stack temperature gradient “.

I’ll keep looking for experimental results that show ammonia to be a bad choice, but so far, I haven’t seen any.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 2, 2014 4:31 pm GMT

Do you have any reference material that provides a sense of the energy intensity of building supergrids? 

As far as environmental impact, newer findings are that powerline right of ways are interconnecting “islands of habitat” as development splits it up.  So in fact it is emerging that transmission lines are acting to preserve biodiversity.

While I agree that biocrops are not a good thing, the contention that windpower has a substantial land use impact in comparision to coal is absurd.  Much of wind power is sited in agricultural and ranch land where it is symbiotic and when removed the land immediately reverts to prior use.  Compare that to the impact of mountain top removal which substantially and irreversibly degrades ecosystems, biodiversity and water resouces. 

Fossil fuel apologists constantly try to suggest that there is an acre to acre equivalency.  This is the height of perverse cynicism.  And yet, sadly, it works in swaying public opinion.  How can one equate the temporary use of an acre of ranchland or farmland with the permanent destruction wrought by mountaintop removal? 

I ran across an interesting site that puts the scale of coal mining into perspective. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 2, 2014 11:34 pm GMT

Everyone has a point of view which biases their perception of the world, so that in itself does not make their statements, observation, or recommendations wrong.  If you believe they are wrong about the facts, then please cite an alternate source.  If you believe they have misinterpreted the data, then please explain.

For example, the data you provide, 36,000 fatalities world-wide from Chernobyl (which by the way is disputed but too low to confirm via measurement) is the majority of deaths from all civilian nuclear power for the last 5 decades (and there are still zero fatalities from Fukushima radiation).  Have you forgotten than coal power kills that many people several times per year (from air pollution)?  Did you realize that burning biomass produces a death toll similar to that of coal (indoor fires are the worst, but power plants are bad too)?

On energy cost, did you realize that the US government Energy Information Administration refutes your claim that nuclear is the most expensive?  They report that nuclear is cheaper than solar PV, solar thermal, off-shore wind, biomass, advanced coal, and fossil gas fired conventional combustion turbines (even without energy storage added to solar and wind).  Similarly, a recent government study from the UK showed that new nuclear power was going to be cheaper than solar, wind (on or off shore), and biomass; by 2030 nuclear would be cheaper than fossil gas, and would remain cheaper than wind and solar.  If you investigate claims of nuclear power being “too” expensive, often you’ll find they are funded by the fossil fuel industry.

The anti-nuclear lobby has undermined the efforts of the environmental movement for too long.  This wrong-headed ideology is prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels, and making the world a dirtier and more dangerous place.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 2, 2014 7:19 pm GMT

Yes, geothermal is clean and cost effective where the resource is good, but that is actually quite rare.  The US has only about 3 GWatts of installed geothermal electricity generation (29% of the global total); much of the existing systems and future potential is around California and Nevada.  Although there are other places where the fluids retrieved from oil wells comes out warm, the heat from which could provide another 1 percent of so of the oil’s energy.

The total geothermal energy coming from the Earth is huge, but most of it is at temperatures which are too low for efficient conversion to electricity, and lack existing water for convenient heat transfer.  Most geothermal systems use rare hydro thermal reservoirs which contain hot ground water.  In engineered geothermal systems, water from another source is injected into one well, warmed by the rock formation, and extracted from a second well, yielding aroud 5 MWatts per well pair (the recovered water is usually contaminated with naturally occuring toxic chemicals).  Of course this require a porous rock formation which is sealed so the water doesn’t escape (also rare).

In Iceland and other places geothermal energy is used to supply district heating.  However, utilization of geothermal energy tends to cause earthquakes, so it is becomes less and less accepted near populated areas.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 2, 2014 7:26 pm GMT

John, I suppose one could assume that any strong advocate for a particular technology or industry is on the take, but that kind of kneejerk reaction is unwarranted here.

  • BTI never suggests that leftover plutonium is not a responsibility that will last for a long time. 240,000 years? Possilbly, in the extremely remote event that we won’t find a way to recycle it in the next 100 years.
  • I have no idea where you’re getting your figures for Chernobyl, which are completely at odds with an analysis by the World Health Organization assembled by 500 radiation health specialists from around the world. It would do your opinion justice to read this report and if you still disagree, refute on a factual basis.
  • Airborne carcinogens from burning biomass kills more people every year than Fukushima ever will.
  • The crisis of Fukushima pales in comparison to the looming crisis of global warming, in light of the fact that nuclear energy is the only proven clean technology robust enough to address it.
  • Your comment about the price of nuclear sounds like a talking point from the Greenpeace playbook and is also contradicted by reputable statistics.

BTI’s urgency, which appears to some to be demonizing renewables, is understandable. I agree with them that all renewables are vastly oversold and are a dangerous distraction from real solutions.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Mar 2, 2014 9:25 pm GMT

John, comparing the Chernobyl facility (with its lack of reactor containment) to a Developed Countries’ Nuclear Power Plants (with full reactor containment) is like comparing the safety of a 1950’s automobile without seatbelts to most any automobile produced today.  The Chernobyl reactor design was very crude, cheap and extremely hazardous.  Yes, the Fukushima plant is of modern design and the recent incident was a huge safety issue, but the impacts would have likely been much worse than the Chernobyl plant if the reactors lacked state-of-art containment.  As with all technologies it’s unfortunately impossible to anticipate every feasible failure incident with 100% certainty.  Despite NASA having one of the most detailed and sophisticated risk analysis processes in the world to access feasible risks to the U.S. space program, they were still unable to anticipate and prevent the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  This is unfortunately the reality of new-evolving state-of-art technologies, but it’s more important to learn from past disasters and incidents, and take corrective actions such as the improvements being made by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission following the Fukushima failure.


John Miller (no relation), Energy Professional

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Mar 2, 2014 9:33 pm GMT

Unfortunately, I am yet to find a good source on the EROI of HVDC grids, but it should be much better than batteries anyway. However, this depends on how far the idea is pushed. Diminishing returns in terms of intermittency mitigation via increased interconnection combined with the low capacity utilization from transporting variable solar/wind output will make VRES HVDC much more intensive in terms of material and energy use, footprint and cost than the HVDC lines currently used in standard dispatchable power systems. 

I’m struggling to understand how a network of 70 m bulldozed channels criss-crossing the countryside can be good for the environment. Could you give some more info?

When it comes to the things causing public opposition to wind farms (e.g. visual/sound pollution & impacts on avian life), it is the overal W/m2 footprint that counts. Some of these resistances might sound irrational, but just ask the nuclear industry how powerful such resistances can be.

Have you looked closely at rare-earth mining and processing? I’ve not looked into it much (it is difficult because almost everything comes out of China), but some stories make it sound pretty bad. Imagine if this operation is to be scaled up by more than an order of magnitude and the industry is driven to whatever is the mountaintop removal equivalent of rare-earth mining. 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 3, 2014 8:11 am GMT

BTW, does Boisvert give some more specifics about how we might “continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems and ecosystems from us”?”

From what I’ve read from Biosvert, he’s a pro-nuke. Nuclear power is as ‘unshackled’ as you can get, because it is not carbon based, run day or night, requires(!) virtually no water or wind and is almost invisible. When built underground – as is proposed for the more advanced mini-reactors being developed, it actually *is* invisible.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Mar 3, 2014 9:59 am GMT


If you have evidence that the Breakthrough Institute is in the pay of the nuclear industry then please produce it. Last year I was invited to their annual dialogue. And shortly before this you were trolling through my Twitter account and then attacked me for not being independent of the nuclear industry because I had indirectly accepted money from the nuclear industry through the BTI. So you have form.

These are serious accusations, and if you are unable to substantiate them, then you should just admit that you are a somewhat crankish conspiracy theorist with an axe to grind.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 3, 2014 2:19 pm GMT

I agree, it is unfortunate that the NIMBYs are getting traction with wind power.  That is why I would like to see us moving away from onshore wind in high population density areas particularly where the Capacity Factors (CF)s are relatively low.  However utilities have a century of practice at gaining transmission right of ways so it may not be as bad though that remains to be seen.

“with the low capacity utilization from transporting variable solar/wind output”

That is a very general statement about renewables that really does not apply to high CF wind from the Great Plains.  The point of using HVDC is to bring high CF power from there.  Prime sites in Texas, NE, KS, ND and SD are relatively untapped.  The current 37% CF is based upon sites that optimize for transmission access rather than CF.  

I would like to see us using HVDC to access 50% CF sites which make reasonably good use of the transmission capacity.  Much of the routing is through agricultural land for which transmission has minimal environmental impact. 

When going through forested areas there is tree loss but the hydrology is not significantly damaged as in mining of coal.  Ample vegitation is permitted, which addresses erosion and wildlife cover.  The primary restriction is that it not grow tall.

The cost of HVDC looks pretty reasonable.  It is discussed in detail in the JCSP ’08 and EWITS reports.  This comparision, from EWITS, gives a pretty good sense of the associated costs.

As to rare earths, I will leave that ball in your court to provide some quantitative basis for concern.  However I will offer this as a starting point.  It takes about 1/2 ton of coal to generate 1 MWhr a 6 MW turbine at 50%CF displaces about 72 tons of coal per day or 525,600 tons over 20 years.  With a VERY conservative strip ratio of 1 that works out to 1 million tons of material mined.  We know that even in the relatively highly regulated US, pollution related to coal mining is pretty significant.  And after burning, the residual ash is is a highly problematic pollutant.  A 6 MW turbine using permanent magnets requires about 1 1/2 tons of rare earths.  So yes rare earth’s have their problems but I have not seen anything leading me to believe that it is of the same order of magnitude as burning coal.



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 3, 2014 3:24 pm GMT

Clayton, does your statement

it is unfortunate that the NIMBYs are getting traction with wind power

make you an “AIYBY” (Always In Your Back Yard) – or do you currently have high voltage transmission lines and towers impacting your view and property values around you?

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 3, 2014 6:55 pm GMT


I think the question needs to be reframed to be meaningful.  If the choice I have is a strip mine being put in at a site that might poison my water supply and a mining industry so powerful that they leave me questioning the integrity of the state agency in charge of assessing my water or a power line nearby, I will choose the power line. 

My desire is to find solutions that minimize the number of people who suffer and the degree to which they suffer.  Do you have a solution that eliminates power lines and mining and all of the other consequences of grid connected power?  Do you live off of the grid?  Do you feel that everyone should? 

I am a bit confused as to your comment about property values.  My understanding is that wind power has not had a negative impact on property values.  Do you have credible documentation to the contrary? 




Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 3, 2014 10:05 pm GMT

Clayton, here is a study from the University of Wisconsin suggesting that wind “significantly reduces property values”:

This paper uses data on 11,331 property transactions over nine years in northern New York State to explore the effects of new wind facilities on property values. They find that nearby wind facilities significantly reduce property values in two of the three counties studied. These results indicate that existing compensation to local homeowners/communities may not be sufficient to prevent a loss of property values.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 3, 2014 11:05 pm GMT

Thanks Bob,

That is one of the studys linked to in Barnards metastudy.  It represents a pretty small datapoint.  But no doubt, one could find ways to site wind turbines to impact property values if they worked at it. 

The broader question is what is the best way to maintain our standard of living and access to energy in such a way that addresses climate change and a variety of other consequences with minimal impact. 

Most people do not stop driving to protest those who lose property to eminent domain for roads.  It is what we deal with in order to have a modern civilization.  My interest is in constructive debate about the best ways to accomplish this.  I do not pretend that the ways that I favor are the only ways.  Based upon what I know I think they are the best.  I am interested in learning what others bring to the table.  For example, Schalk has expertise in CCS.  I am looking forward to his sharing further information about how that technology works, hoping he will talk about status, estimated cost of development etc.  Likewise there is a lot of discussion about Thorium reactors.  Something I have not had time to delve into but its on my list. 

As far as wind power, I favor placing it in the central states which is mostly rural farm and ranchland which is highly symbiotic.  Here is a post of farmland in Indiana.  The farmers seem content to have wind farms on their land.  They probably get paid pretty well. 

I think the bigger issue is that of HVDC transmission lines.  Again, much of the path is through rural farmland.  It also requires smaller right-of-ways for a given amount of power.  DC power is much different in that the fields are not oscillating thus eliminating any hum.  Also, and this is just me, I would be far less apprehensive about being near high DC fields than AC fields. 

Do you have thoughts on approaches to addressing the energy challenges we face that have less impact on people? 


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 4, 2014 12:21 am GMT

Clayton, this is a subjective matter and as you point out, it’s reasonably easy to manipulate data to favor your own pre-conceived notions – especially when dealing with a “soft” science like property values.

Maybe I’m more sensitive than the average person regarding the destruction of scenic vistas – or maybe not. Everyone has a point beyond which intrusion on nature is not worth benefit gained, and the footprint of wind, for me, exceeds that standard in all areas of the country except Great Plains. Even in that case it should not be subject to eminent domain but the volition of the landowner.

While you often cite windfarms as being “termporary” installations, there are thousands of non-functional turbines spinning in the breeze with no plans whatsoever to remove them. They’re junk, and a blight by anyone’s estimation. England just celebrated the removal of four non-functioning turbines last year – the first time non-functioning turbines have actually been dismantled there.

Nuclear energy has a far smaller footprint than wind, even considering exclusion zones from the worst disasters. For example – producing the same quantity of annual energy as the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant under construction in Somerset, England, assuming a 30% CF, would require a windfarm the size of Greater London – and that doesn’t include transmission.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 4, 2014 2:04 am GMT

Bill, the analysis of ethanol production vs. the price of corn is one complicated by subsidies, weather, and market forces. This study from Iowa State concludes that ethanol production was responsible for just under half of the increase in the price of corn between 2004-2009:

Averaging across 2006–2009, subsidies contributed an average of $0.14 per bushel (8%) to the increase in corn prices. Market-based ethanol expansion contributed an average of $0.45 per bushel, or about 27% of the total increase. Together, subsidies plus market-driven expansion of ethanol caused about 36% of the increase in corn prices in 2006 to 2009 relative to 2004 levels…

However, expansion of ethanol certainly has contributed to higher corn prices. Just under half of the change in corn prices from 2004 to 2009 was caused by ethanol expansion.

Do you disagree with this assessment, and if so, why?

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Mar 4, 2014 1:45 am GMT

We are probably not as far apart as you think.  I agree that great plains is where the effort should be.  And there are vast tracts of land that seem a good fit for wind.  As I look at the acceptance in rural IL and IN, it would appear that people in rural agricultural areas are pretty comfortable with the use.  In areas like Maine I think that the bang for the buck may not be worth it the heated battles.  In the grand scheme of things, is it really going to have a significant impact on our carbon footprint?  I read about someone in Maine who purchased a rural site so they would be where they could hear nothing but nature.  Then along came a wind farm.  In that situation I could understand their strong dislike of the turbines that came along after they had settled in a very remote area.  In most areas turbines are quiet compared to the ambient sound.  However under those circumstances the sound probably would have been distracting at some distance.

Alternatively, I am aware of a case where a homeowner had a home close to a divided highway that is heavily travelled.  It was neither a scenic spot nor a quiet spot.  The turbine was built on the other side of the highway from them in an industrial area on a landfill.  They got a little shadow flicker in October and March.  Hard for me to feel a lot of sympathy for them.  However, given that situations like that end up galvanizing opposition, I think the wind industry has reached a point where it makes more sense to avoid sites like that and focus on areas such as the Great Plains and off shore where the CF is fabululous and there is a lot less downside.

The challenge with the Great Plains is getting the power to the point of use and therein lies the difficulty and the place where compromise will be needed. 

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 4, 2014 2:13 pm GMT

Fukushima had the luck that almost all winds went towards the ocean (and not towards e.g. Tokyo), which implied that ~97% of the fall-out went off into the ocean. Still the ~3% that did fall on land caused a major exclusion zone and contaminated people.
Despite that luck and good evacuation, ~2%-7% of the children outside the Fukushima plant will get detrimental diseases (incl. premature death) due to the accident as the recent WHO report shows (despite the 1959 agreement which forces WHO to follow nuclear energy promoting IAEA in such radiation matters).

The detrimental consequences of Chernobyl concern hundreds of million people that were excluded in the IAEA/WHO reports. Those reports restricted themselves to only the direct involved people (not even all evacuees). And even that was done so bad that Ukraïne government produced a report stating far more casualties in those groups.

But even more than 1000miles away the health consequences were serious; up to 20% more stillbirth, up to 40% more Down, congenital malformations, etc. That could be shown due to the unique circumstance that:
 – population registers in districts in the south of Germany registered all serious birth defects since 1980; and
 – some districts got fall-out up to ~0.5mSv/year (Cs-137) from rainfall by the Chernobyl cloud that passed, while other districts did not.

The study showed an highly significant (p<0.001) sudden upswing in the downward trend of serious birth defects only in districts that got fall out! The study was executed by the official responsible German Helmholtz institute and published in a special number of peer reviewed ESPR.

This presentation shows also other studies that show other serious damage not considered by IAEA/WHO.

The New York Academy of Sciences found the disregarding of IAEA/WHO so shocking that they published a review of the thousands of Eastern-European studies which concludes that Chernobyl caused ~1million deaths before 2006. Considering the 20-60 years of delay before the harm of low level radiation shows (as LSS showed and similar with smoking, asbestos, air pollution), one must conclude that Chernobyl will cost ~4million deaths in the period to the year 2100.  Assuming an exaggeration of a factor 4 by the Eastern European researches and the reviewer, prof. Yablokov, that still implies one million deaths.

Enhanced risks for children nearby nuclear power plants
This overview shows that those power plants are even dangerous while not having major accidents.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 5, 2014 10:34 am GMT

The large land footprint of wind turbines, solar panels….”
The land footprints of wind and solar is substantially less than that of nuclear!

Even neglecting the (large) land foot of the uranium mines, etc., a 1GW NPP has a land foot print of ~1KW/m².

Rooftop solar (which is by far most solar in Germany) occupies no land at all.
If 50% of all roofs in Germany are covered with low yield (~15%) solar panels, than they generate >100% of all electricity Germany needs (>700TWh).
And now the better solar panels generate ~50% more per m².

Offshore: those wind turbines have no land footprint!
Onshore: The footprint of a 7.5MW wind turbine is ~400m². So the power density is ~20KW/m², 10-20 times better than nuclear.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 5, 2014 10:54 am GMT

…wind power and coal power are related. Clearly they’re not, or else the Germans …
Clearly they are!
As a more accurate look into German electricity generation history shows.
Just look a little further than the small year-to-year fluctuations (mainly due to the cold weather of the last years here).

This graph delivers a nice overview covering the last six years.
It shows that more renewable implies less fossil, incl. coal burning

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2014 12:27 am GMT

N Nadir, the specter of that Greenpeace-financed drivel will haunt nuclear energy until the end of time solely for the imprimatur of NYAS, and not for any valid conclusions it might draw. One would think a scientific organization in a reasonably-enlightened locale like New York might pull this stuff from their website in shame – but it was also residents of that locale which closed Shoreham.

Rod Adams did a piece which should have laid this antinuke zombie to rest three years ago:

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 6, 2014 11:24 am GMT

So you do not consider the excellent western science that show damaging effects of low level Chernobyl radiation as stated in my other links. E.g. that by the official German institute and publised in peer reviewed ESPR.

New York Academy of Sciences found the ‘disregarding’ shocking
Why else did they publish only this book about Chernobyl?
While they know it creates so much resistance in USA?

If it is a “regular” publication, where are the other publications about Chernobyl at their WEB-site?

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 6, 2014 11:31 am GMT

Rod Adams filters comments on his posts at Atomic Insight (as I experieced)….

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